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No. 2 Houston eyes improved shooting vs. SMU

Dec 31, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Cougars guard Jamal Shead (1) reacts after a play during the second half against the Central Florida Knights at Fertitta Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The tests will continue unabated for No. 2 Houston, with the Cougars’ ability to manage those weekly challenges providing the clearest indicator of how a season of promise will unfold.

The Cougars’ next obstacle is a Thursday home game against SMU in American Athletic Conference action.

Houston overcame its own poor shooting while defeating visiting UCF 71-65 on Saturday. The Cougars (14-1, 2-0 AAC) shot 37.5 percent overall and missed 13 of 19 3-point attempts, but they forced the Knights into 13 turnovers that they converted into 20 points.

While their record is sterling, the Cougars haven’t yet put everything together.

Marcus Sasser leads Houston in scoring at 15.9 points per game but is shooting just 32 percent from 3-point range. Heralded freshman Jarace Walker (8.8 points, 5.9 rebounds) has enjoyed a modest start, but the Cougars have received positive contributions from underclassmen Ja’Vier Francis, Emanuel Sharp and Terrance Arceneaux. Currently, the development is blending nicely with the desired results.

“We’re 14-1. We’ve had two big road wins,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “This team is progressing. We’re moving in the right direction. Teaching a team how to win is not easy. It’s hard to win a game. I never take any of it for granted.

“For us, we have to know how we want to play. Roles have to be defined, roles have to be accepted. And then, over the course of the season, improvements have to be made.”

Something unexpectedly positive emerged from the Mustangs’ loss of Zhuric Phelps to an injury just eight minutes into their 92-67 win over Tulsa on Sunday.

Phelps, who leads the team in scoring at 18.4 points per contest, posted three points prior to his departure. SMU was forced to shuffle its rotation without him, and as a result, found a collection of contributors collectively willing to fill the void.

“We didn’t have Zhuric this game and he’s good at creating his own shot,” SMU’s Emory Lanier said. “It was great for our team to see when we don’t have a scorer like him in the game, all of us (unselfishly) moving that ball, and we looked a lot more balanced on offense.

“It was good for our whole team … getting better at playing with each other and off each other.”

After averaging only 13 3-point attempts during the previous four games, the Mustangs finished 14 of 26 from behind the arc against Tulsa. Reserves accounted for half of those totals, offering further proof of a team jelling in a timely fashion and under duress.

Phelps is expected to be available on Thursday against the Cougars.

“We were starting to come together as a team, what we want to look like,” SMU coach Rob Lanier said. “We’ve shown signs: at Dayton for a stretch, (the) first half of the Arizona State game. What would it look like if we actually played the way we want the program to look? When we got to Hawaii against Utah State, it was the first time where it was like, ‘This is what I am after.’

“I was intrigued to see if we would come home with that, and we didn’t to start the game (against the Golden Hurricane). But that team in the second half energized us enough to stay ahead of them. Now that’s something else we can build on.”

–Field Level Media