...and that problem is Kentucky.
The Houston Cougars ride into Rupp Arena Wednesday, January 3rd to face off against the Wildcats at 7:00pm. Currently with a record of 5-6, Houston is fresh off a 17-point wire-to-wire thumping by UNLV, and up until now have shown little of the ferocity of their feline namesake. Houston is coached by Tom Penders, whom you may remember from his days in Texas and at George Washington. This is Penders' 3rd season at Houston, and looks to be his most challenging.
Houston by the numbers
After a 21-10 NCAA-tournament season last year, Houston returns guards Lanny Smith and Oliver Lafayette, both seniors. Smith, however, is returning from off-season surgery on his toe, and has seen spotty duty so far this year. He started 3 games in early Dec, then did not play up until the UNLV loss, where he saw 33 minutes. Lafayette is a good on the ball defender and strokes the three at a 39% clip. Houston also has 4 transfers, Marcus Malone, Robert McKiver, Robert Lee, and Charlie Jones, 3 of whom have had a significant impact on Houston's season so far. McKiver is the Cougar's #1 scoring threat, averaging a respectable 18 ppg and shooting 34% from three point range. Junior forward Dion Dowell and Lafayette are right behind, averaging 17 and 16 ppg respectively.
Penders has tinkered with the starting lineup quite a bit this season, so the starters are a little hard to figure. However, besides the players mentioned above, possible starters include Jahmar Thorpe, Sam Anderson and Tafari Toney. In all, Houston has 9 players seeing 15 minutes/game or more. In this respect, Houston resembles the Kentucky team of last year, and is searching for an identity as well as a reliable rotation.
Houston, unlike EKU, likes to play a very fast-paced game. In terms of pace of play alone, Houston ranks 16th in the nation, compared to Kentucky's 117th place ranking. It would be a huge surprise if Houston didn't try to push the pace as much as possible, and it will be telling to see if Kentucky allows this to happen - Tubby Smith has been clamoring for a faster pace of play all season, and we'll all have a chance to see if he really means it.
Houston as a team is not particularly efficient offensively, as it's 103rd place national ranking suggests, but it is even less efficient defensively ranking at 121st overall. By comparison, Kentucky ranks 44th and 20th, respectively. Houston does take care of the ball, however, averaging only 13 turnovers per game compared to Kentucky's 16. In spite of their good ball-handling, Houston is not a great passing team, averaging only 12 assists/game compared to the somewhat better 16 that the Wildcats have worked their way up to. The Cougars also foul quite a lot, as you might expect from their tempo, averaging 21 per game vs. UK's 15.
As you also might expect, Houston plays a pressure defense which averages nearly 8 steals per game vs. 6 for UK, and over 45% of their shots are 3-point shots, vs. 31% for Kentucky. Houston also averages 3 more rebounds than Kentucky, but this stat can be misleading due to the higher number of possessions in a Houston game. The offensive rebounding edge goes to Houston, but it isn't statistically significant, so you can consider that stat even. Free throw shooting could be a factor if this game is close, and Houston shoots a very respectable 69% from the stripe. The downside is they don't get to the line all that much, taking more than 5 field goal attempts for every 1 made free-throw. The Wildcats are respectable also this year at 67%, but we have had our off nights. Kentucky does get to the line more often, making a free throw for every 4 shots we take.
What it all means
If there was ever a team who was capable of pulling a huge upset on the Wildcats, it is this Houston team...but that doesn't mean it is likely. The Cougars have provided very little reason for optimism in their season thus far, but there are several factors operating in their favor in this particular game. One is that their senior leader and point guard Lanny Smith is preparing for his second game back from injury and is likely to be near full strength for the first time all year. Second is that Houston fires up a lot of three point shots, and if there is one thing we know about the ball-line defense, it can be hurt by a team that gets hot from the perimeter. Houston is also an athletic, pressing team that may give our somewhat shaky back court ball-handlers some trouble. Finally, the 'Cats have won 6 in a row, and some of the swagger is returning to their step. Will that bring overconfidence as well?
The good news for UK is that Houston has no answer whatsoever for Randolph Morris except hoping for foolish fouls (seemingly a vain hope these days). Houston is a relatively small team both in height and bulk, and really doesn't play the kind of half-court defense it takes to prevent Morris from having a big day. Double-teams will provide ample opportunity for ball reversal and open threes or drives to the basket for UK's back court players. Houston's guards are quick but not exactly all-American defenders, which bodes well for our perimeter players.
Defensively, Kentucky doesn't have to worry so much about the type of 3-pointer that their defense is most vulnerable to, which is the inside-out shot. Houston has a relatively weak post presence and shoots only 43% from inside the arc, so UK can concentrate on denying the ball to the better 3-point shooters and not have to worry so much about interior help. But good ball reversal can still hurt the 'Cats, and Smith & Co. must be very careful not to let Houston work on the defense that way and stay at home on their 3-point shooters.
In sum, Houston is statistically weaker even than EKU, and should be just the sort of pre-SEC season opponent the 'Cats need to get some PT for their bench, if the Cougars play their normal game. But if Houston gets hot, the Wildcats can be in for a very long night. The Cougars possess just the sort of weapons that can send us limping instead of leaping into the SEC meat-grinder, but only if the Wildcats have a defensive let-down or Houston's guards put on an unconscious display of perimeter shooting.