Houston seemingly shouldn't be a factor in the Conference USA race this season. The Cougars return just four players from a team that went 12-18 last season and only one player remains in the program from before coach James Dickey was hired in April 2010.
Yet maybe it is premature to think Houston can't compete in C-USA.
Though the Cougars split their first eight games, one of the victories was over Arkansas at Little Rock and the four losses have been by a combined total of seven points.
Houston has dropped one-point decisions to Texas Christian and Louisiana State, suffered a two-point defeat at the hands of Oakland and lost by three to Texas State.
One of the returnees, sophomore forward Alandise Harris, has gotten off to a good start and is averaging a team-high 16.0 points a game along with averages of 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. He averaged 9.4 points as a freshman.
Junior guard Jonathon Simmons had a 13.6 scoring average in his first season after transferring from Midland (Texas) Junior College. Junior forward Kirk Van Slyke, the last player remaining from Tom Penders' tenure as coach, is averaging 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds a game.
Forward TaShawn Thomas, a freshman, has made an immediate impact with averages of 10.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks If Thomas and Simmons continue to assimilate quickly then Houston has a chance to be one of C-USA's surprise teams.
--Houston was invited to join the Big East and will begin play in that conference at the start of the 2012-13 season. Perhaps moving into a power conference will rejuvenate the program. Houston has been to the NCAA Tournament just once since joining Conference USA in 1996, that appearance coming in 2010. The Cougars have gone to five Final Fours in their history, all under coach Guy Lewis and none since 1984.
--Houston had just a two-man recruiting class in the early signing period but it was ranked among the top 20 in the nation by ESPN, Scout.com and Rivals.com. The Cougars landed Danrad "Chicken" Knowles, a 6-foot-10 forward from Homeschool Christian Youth in Houston, and Danuel House, a 6-foot-7 forward from Hightower High School in Sugar Land, Texas.
PLAYER TO WATCH: F Alandise Harris -- The 6-foot-6, 230-pound sophomore has stepped up his game and emerged as a leader of a team that has eight newcomers. Despite his bulk, Harris presents matchup problems because he has the quickness to score both inside and outside. He is averaging 16.0 points and 6.5 rebounds, up from 9.4 and 5.4 a year ago.
KEY CONFERENCE GAME: Jan. 4 vs. Tulsa -- Houston is expected to finish near the bottom of the Conference USA standings but will get a chance to prove it might surprise when it hosts one of conference's traditional powers. The Cougars have lost four of their last five games against Tulsa but registered a 64-57 home victory last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Alandise and I keep trying to get in each other's heads during practice. We make it a competition to see who is going to get the most rebounds." -- freshman forward TaShawn Thomas, who is averaging 8.8 rebounds a game, on how he and Harris push each other in practice to become better rebounders.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010-11 CONFERENCE RECORD: 4-12, 11th place
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: Versatile F Alandise Harris is emerging as Houston's top player, averaging 16.0 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game. Freshman F TaShawn Thomas is proving to be an able frontcourt complement with averages of 10.4 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game. G Darian Thibodeaux is averaging just 6.4 points per game but remains the glue of a backcourt that also includes newcomers in G Jonathon Simmons, a junior college transfer, scoring 13.6 points per game and G Joseph Young, a freshman averaging 9.9 points per game and 3.5 assists per game.
--Simmons is starting to knock the rust off after being away from organized basketball for a year. The junior set a career high with 22 points in a win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Dec. 3 then bettered it with a 26-point performance three days later in a loss to Texas State. Simmons has been averaging 10.2 points a game before erupting for a combined 48 points in the those two games. Simmons last played at Midland (Texas) Junior College in 2010.
--Thomas continues to get better and had back-to-back double-doubles with 12 points and 12 rebounds against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and 11 points and 13 rebounds against Texas State. Those were the first two double-doubles of his career.
--Young is playing with a lot of eyes on him as he became a high school legend in Houston for helping Yates win back-to-back mythical national titles in 2009 and 2010. Furthermore, he is son of former Cougars All-American and Phi Slama Jama member Michael Young, Houston's director of basketball operations. Joseph Young has held his own after being to forced to sit out last season when Providence would not let him out of his letter of intent. He is averaging 9.9 points per game and a team-best 3.5 assists per game.