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The Houston Cougars Haven’t Been This Good Since Phi Slama Jama

In the early 1980s, the Houston men’s basketball program was the best show running. Led by two future Naismith Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the team nicknamed “Phi Slama Jama” pioneered above-the-rim offense, bringing a modern twist to a game that still didn’t have a shot clock.

Phi Slama Jama graduated in 1984, after a Georgetown team, led by future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, dismantled the Cougars for its sole national championship. And that disappointment was on the heels of two other back-to-back Final Four losses.1 After three tantalizing cracks at the sport’s biggest prize came decades of near-anonymity: Houston would make just four NCAA Tournaments over the next three decades, including a drought from 1992 to 2010, and win zero games in the Big Dance during that stretch.


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But the arrival of head coach Kelvin Sampson in 2014 offered Cougars fans new hope, and the move has paid off. Led by a coach with nearly 600 wins and four decades of experience to his name, the Cougars have pounced on a chance for national relevance, making back-to-back tournaments in 2018 and 2019, including a No. 3 seed and a Sweet 16 appearance in the latter. This year, the Cougars are squarely in the mix of teams primed to make a deep run in March, ranking No. 4 in KenPom’s overall rankings and currently projected by BracketMatrix to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And though these Cougars may lack the star power of Hakeem, Clyde and Co., their relentless pursuit on the offensive glass and stingy defense have powered the program’s best team since Phi Slama Jama.

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“Our constant is our defense, our rebounding and the way we take care of the ball,” Sampson said last month. “As long as we do those three things — the Holy Trinity — we’re always in the game.”

The Cougars’ offense ranks ninth in Division I, according to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric — a bit of a surprise given that they haven’t exactly scorched the nets. They shoot just 49.2 percent on 2-pointers and struggle particularly in the midrange, converting below the Division I average across four zones between the 3-point line and the paint, according to CBB Analytics. They’re better from beyond the arc, shooting 35.3 percent — above the Division I average of 33.8 percent. They’re anchored by leading scorer Quentin Grimes, who shoots 39.3 percent from 3-point range and has been on tear recently, making 26 of 52 triples over his last five games. But despite their relative marksmanship from long range, the Cougars manage just the 134th-best effective field-goal percentage in Division I. Among the 10 most efficient offenses in the country, that’s easily the worst ranking.

Where Houston really makes its mark on offense is on the glass. Under Sampson, Houston has ranked in the top 100 of offensive rebounding percentage in every season and has ranked inside the top 25 of that metric in three consecutive seasons. (Prior to Sampson’s arrival, the team had finished within the top 100 just twice since 2000.) In practice, Sampson’s emphasis on his players collecting their own misses is exemplified by a grueling rebounding drill called the “bubble drill,” in which a lid is placed on top of the rim, guaranteeing a missed shot and an ensuing scrum for the ball — with those failing to snare a board having to run for their sins.

“Either you are going to stick your nose and try to get it, or you’re going to run some type of sprint,” senior guard DeJon Jarreau said to the University of Houston student paper in January. “Nobody wants to run a shuttle, so we all go in there, going hard at each other and diving on the floor, running over each other.”

This year, Sampson’s crew has played like there’s indeed been a lid on the rim, grabbing offensive rebounds on a staggering 39.6 percent of misses, second in the NCAA. Senior big man Justin Gorham is the leader of that effort, rebounding 17 percent of his team’s misses — good for fifth-best nationally — when he’s on the floor. But Houston also tends to rebound by committee, and it’s effective at grabbing all sorts of misses: Six Cougars nab at least one offensive rebound per game,2 and according to CBB Analytics, the Cougars rank in the 99th percentile in rebounding misses off of corner threes, the 92nd percentile on midrange misses and the 99th percentile on bricks at the rim.

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The Cougars have also capitalized on a relatively sure-handed approach on offense, turning the ball over on just 16.6 percent of their possessions, and that’s paired well with an opportunistic approach on the other end of the court, where they force turnovers on 22.6 percent of opponents’ possessions. That, in turn, has led to the country’s 14th-best turnover margin.3 And teams that manage to get off a shot against Houston often see the proverbial lid over the rim: The Cougars are surrendering the fifth-lowest 3-point percentage (28.1) in all of Division I, as well as the fourth-lowest 2-point percentage (42.6). In fact, opponents manage an average effective field-goal percentage of just 42.4 against Houston’s smothering defense, the lowest figure in college basketball. If that were to hold, it would be the second time in three seasons the Cougars had the best shooting defense in college basketball.

Houston’s fate in the tournament is anything but certain. The Cougars are on less solid footing now than they were a few weeks ago, thanks to a pair of losses to mediocre-to-bad competition in Wichita State and East Carolina. The team’s depth took a hit early in the season when Caleb Mills, the American Athletic Conference’s preseason player of the year, decided to transfer. The Cougars also endured a lengthy COVID-19 pause in December of last year, during which Sampson said “all 15 players” came down with the virus.

But the Cougars find themselves squarely in the mix of the country’s best teams, with the ninth-best offense and fifth-best defense in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings — one of only three teams in the top 15 of both categories. Since the 2001-02 season,4 just four teams have hoisted the national championship trophy while ranking outside the top 15 in adjusted efficiency ratings on either offense or defense.

All told, Sampson has engineered one of the more stunning revivals in men’s college basketball. The Cougars have quietly gone back to being tournament mainstays, this time as the powerhouse of the American Athletic Conference, all while building a core identity around not beating themselves, rebounding their own misses and causing havoc on the defensive end. They might not be led by iconic names like “The Dream” and “The Glide” or unleash the ridiculous posterizations that came to define Phi Slama Jama nearly 40 years ago, and there’s still no guarantee they’ll finish the fraternity’s Final Four job, but the Houston Cougars are back to their winning ways on the hardwood.


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Footnotes

  1. In 1982, Michael Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels edged the Cougars 68-63 in the national semifinals. The next year, Lorenzo Charles answered a prayer for North Carolina State in one of the biggest upsets in national-title history.

  2. Among players with at least 15 games played.

  3. Through games of Feb. 27.

  4. The first for which we have adjusted efficiency data.

Santul Nerkar is a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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