The wheels are coming off the Cougars' wagon.
And try as they may to avoid panic, it's getting difficult for Cougars players to not start feeling a bit nervous.
"It's only January," senior point guard Zamal Nixon told the Houston Chronicle. "It's a long conference (season)."
But even in a 16-game conference schedule, teams can't afford many three-game losing streaks, as the Cougars were on in an eight-day stretch between Jan. 22 and Jan. 29. The stretch included last-minute losses to UTEP, Rice and East Carolina.
Depending on how full one wants to view the glass, it can be a good thing that Houston was in all three games late or a scary prospect considering the team hadn't done anything to prove it can close out victories in the closing moments.
"We've been right in the game," Nixon told the Chronicle. "It's been going down to the wire, and we just haven't been able to pull it out. We know we can play with the best teams in the conference."
Coach James Dickey was trying his best not to have the losing streak get directed too much on the players, trying instead to take the heat himself, even if watching the games it was apparent player mistakes down the stretch and not coaching decisions were the difference.
"It's disappointing for us because this is our third in a row where we put ourselves in a position to win and just hadn't finished games," Dickey said after the East Carolina loss.
--Houston led late in each of three losses between Jan. 22 and Jan. 29.
On Jan. 22, the Cougars led UTEP with just 3:04 remaining in the game before losing 57-52. On Jan. 26, the Cougars led cross-town rival Rice by four with 2:25 remaining, only to lose 79-71 in overtime. On Jan. 29, the Cougars led by 13 midway through the second half and were still up by nine with 4:04 remaining in the game, only to lose to East Carolina 74-70.
--A Jan. 29 loss to East Carolina gave the Cougars a three-game losing streak just a week after they had been playing for a share for the C-USA lead.
It was the first three-game skid for Houston since losing three consecutive games from Dec. 29, 2009, through Jan. 3, 2010, to close out last year's non-conference portion of the schedule. The last three-game losing streak in C-USA regular season play came when the Cougars lost to Tulane, DePaul and Southern Miss on Feb. 11, 14 and 18, 2004.
--Houston allowed East Carolina to shoot just 4-for-24 from 3-point range but still lost 74-70 on Jan. 29. With that showing, the Cougars improved their season 3-point defensive field-goal percentage to 28.7 percent, second best in C-USA.
BY THE NUMBERS: 65.2 percent -- Through Jan. 29, the Cougars' success rate at the free-throw line was the lowest mark in C-USA. But in league games, the Cougars ranked fourth, shooting 72.1 percent from the line.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've got to do a better job coaching." -- Coach James Dickey, after a Jan. 29 loss at East Carolina, Houston's third consecutive defeat.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--vs. Marshall, Feb. 1
KEY MATCHUPS: The Thundering Herd has a potent inside-out attack with freshman G DeAndre Kane and senior F Tirrell Baines each averaging 14.7 points per league game through Jan. 29. Houston has been good defensively this season for the most part, but it will be tested by the Baines/Kane duo.
--at Tulsa, Feb. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: When the Cougars beat Tulsa on Jan. 19, they did so with three Golden Hurricane players -- G Justin Hurtt, C Steven Idlet and G/F Bryson Pope -- combining for 47 of the team's 57 points. If the Cougars can shut everyone else down again, by all means, that's the route to go. But Hurtt, the conference's leading scorer through Jan. 30, is capable any night of putting up 30-plus points, so Houston may want to spend a little more time denying him the ball.
FUTURES MARKET: It appears coach James Dickey's head-scratching experiment of having F Maurice McNeil, arguably the team's top player, come off the bench might be over. McNeil was in the Dickey doghouse and didn't start five straight games, but on Jan. 29, was he back in the starting lineup replacing F Kirk Van Slyke, who did not play. The team chemistry seemed off. While McNeil scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in 34 minutes of playing time, Houston still lost its third straight game. The constant shifting of starting lineups probably will have to settle down in February if Houston doesn't want to keep sliding down the standings.
--Senior F Maurice McNeil had 18 points and 13 rebounds in a Jan. 29 loss to East Carolina, the first game he started since the C-USA opening loss to Southern Miss on Jan. 5.
--Senior PG Zamal Nixon had three turnovers and two assists in a Jan. 29 loss to East Carolina. It was the first time since a Dec. 4 win over Sam Houston State that Nixon had more turnovers than assists. He had three turnovers and just one assist in that game.