The Houston Cougars have plenty of reason to look forward to their March 3 regular season finale.
Not only will the game be against Rice, the cross-town rival that has knocked off Houston three straight times, but it is also a chance for the suddenly hot Cougars to finish the regular season above .500.
That shot at a winning record came thanks to winning three of four games between Feb. 18 and Feb. 29, including embarrassing Tulane 82-53 on a Feb. 29 senior night home finale. The Tulane win gave the Cougars a 14-14 record overall (6-9 in C-USA action).
And the young Cougars squad that is still very much in transition under second-year head coach James Dickey has been at its best down the stretch thanks to its lone senior, Darian Thibodeaux.
While his 12 points and seven assists against Tulane were impressive, his defense was what has some Cougars thinking a March 3 win and maybe a little noise in the C-USA Tournament is possible.
"The thing I was impressed with is that he held the leading scorer in Conference USA -- Tulane's Ricky Tarrant -- to zero points," Dickey said.
Entering the game, Tarrant, who went 0-for-9 against the Cougars thanks in large part to Thibodeaux, was averaging in league games a C-USA leading 19.6 points per game.
Asked about the team's momentum heading into the Rice game and into the C-USA Tournament, Thibodeaux tried downplaying it after the Tulane win.
"Overall, we are just trying to keep humble and stay hungry," Thibodeaux said.
Cougars get balanced effort from starters
--All five Houston Cougars starters -- Gs Jonathan Simmons (23), Darian Thibodeaux (12) and Joseph Young (12) along with Fs TaShawn Thomas (13) and Alandise Harris (11) -- scored in double figures in a Feb. 29 win over Tulane. It was the first time the Cougars' starting five each scored in double figures in a game since the Nov. 12 season opening win over Grambling State.
--Junior F Leon Gibson had his first double-digit rebounding game with 11 boards in a Feb. 22 loss at Marshall. He liked it so much, he did it again a week later with 10 boards in a Feb. 29 blowout victory over Tulane in 21 minutes on the floor. Entering the team's season finale March 3 vs. Rice, Gibson is averaging 3.3 rebounds per game and just 12.3 minutes.
BY THE NUMBERS: 6-1 -- Houston's record this season through Feb. 25 when holding opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field. The Cougars were 7-13 otherwise.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You just have to build up your confidence as you go, but I'm getting a rhythm as each game goes by." -- Houston freshman G Joseph Young, on why he is surging late in the season. Young sat out last season after transferring from Providence before playing a game for the Friars.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Rice, March 3
KEY MATCHUPS: Rice is led by junior F Arsalan Kazemi, who was averaging 12.3 points and 10.4 rebounds a game through Feb. 26, and junior G Tamir Jackson, who had a 10.9 scoring average. Rice beat Houston 79-71 on the road Feb. 8. Freshman F Jarelle Reischel led Rice with 16 points, Jackson had 13 points and five assists, senior G Connor Frizzelle scored 13 points, and freshman G Dylan Ennis added 10 points and six assists. Simmons had a double-double for Houston with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while sophomore F Alandise Harris and Young added 13 points apiece. Rice shot 50 percent.
STAR WATCH: The up and down scoring of junior G Jonathan Simmons was definitely up on Feb. 29 against Tulane and it will have to be again March 3 for the Cougars to end a three-game losing streak to the Rice Owls and finish the regular season with a winning record. Simmons, Houston's leading scorer on the year (15.0 points after the Tulane win), went off for a game-high 23 against the Green Wave on an efficient 10-of-16 shooting. He also grabbed eight rebounds (he averages 5.1) and dished out five assists (he averages 1.9).
FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore G Jimmie Jones is seeing increased playing time. He logged 18 minutes and scored three points in a 66-58 loss at Marshall on Feb. 22, then had four points in 17 minutes in the win over SMU. Prior to those games, the walk-on had played in just 10 games and scored two points in 76 minutes.
--Freshman G Joseph Young scored a career-high 27 points in a 62-59 victory over Southern Methodist on Feb. 25. It was his third 20-point game of the season and his seventh straight game scoring in double figures. During those seven games, Young averaged 15.3 points to lift his season average to 11.5. His previous scoring best was 25 points in a win over Texas State on Dec. 30.
--Junior F Leon Gibson had his best game of the season in the loss at Marshall, posting a double-double with career highs of 17 points and 11 rebounds. The junior college transfer's previous top scoring game was 16 points in a win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Dec. 3, which was his only other double-figure game.
--Freshman F TaShawn Thomas had scored in double figures in three straight games through Feb. 25, averaging 10.7 points a game, after being held to single digits in the previous two games. Thomas' scoring average was down to 10.6 through Feb. 25.