The Houston Cougars returned home Wednesday night for the final non-conference game of the season. Behind 20 points and five boards from Josh Carlton, the Coogs dispatched the Texas State Bobcats, 80-47. Jamal Shead had 12 points and ten assists.
The Cougars raced out to an early lead thanks to crisp play all-around. Kellen Sampson took charge of scouting Texas State and focused his game plan on preventing second-chance points.
That meant Tuesday night’s show would run through Carlton, the grad transfer from UConn. In just 22 minutes, he was 10/13 shooting and hit each of his last eight shots. He also had a steal and a block – his presence in the middle pressures teams into kick-out passes and altered shot attempts.
And Carlton’s size helps the Cougars dominate the defensive glass: the Bobcats had just three second-chance points (UH won the battle on the defensive glass 22-7). Due to his broad shoulders, he can set screens without making contact, and his size forces players to screen themselves when they try running around him.
“Our best player is Marcus,” Kelvin Sampson explained after the game. “We’re gonna play through Marcus, and we’re gonna play through Big Josh.”
Sampson said that Carlton committed to Houston during last year’s NCAA Tournament. After several calls, Josh committed over the phone in the days before the Sweet 16 game vs. Syracuse. After receiving his political science degree from UConn, he moved to Houston to become the player Sampson envisioned.
“Josh is something we had not had. Josh is 6’10” and he’s really good naturally with his size. His size is a factor. And the thing I sold Josh on is that we’ll play through him but he’s got to get better,” Kelvin said.
Indeed, Carlton’s role at UConn began to diminish in mid-January and he played just 11 minutes a game in his senior year. Since coming back from Hawaii, Carlton has averaged 13 ppg on 36/53 shooting (67.9%) and 6.6 rebounds. He’s scored 128 points this season – 61 more than all of last year at UConn.
“Josh just gave us something we didn’t have,” Sampson said. His players agree.
“(Carlton) makes it easier,” Marcus Sasser said about the big man. “When we throw the ball in, we have a thing we do called Canada, where the guards cut. He’s bringing so much attention from the other team. They are double-teaming him, focusing on him. So it’s making the guards have a lot easier shots. It makes the game much easier when he has the ball.”
Against Texas State, UH shot 55.2% (32/58) and 46.4% (13/28) from beyond the arc. The Cougars also dominated in the paint, outscoring TxSt 36-16, and committed only eight turnovers after having 19 vs. Oklahoma State on Saturday.
Houston’s depth, a strength of the team as recently as a few weeks ago, has been repeatedly weakened over the last ten days, with hardly anyone in the rotation at full force. Tramon Mark underwent surgery on his left shoulder Wednesday morning and is done for the season. Taze Moore, still battling illness and a hand injury, missed his second straight game.
Marcus Sasser has been dealing with turf toe, Jamal Shead hurt his ankle early in the Texas State game, Ramon Walker Jr. is still dealing with a hand problem, and Reggie Chaney (wrist) has played just 36 minutes in the last four games. In addition, Kyler Edwards, who had 14 points (4/7 from 3-point range) against Texas State, sprained his ankle late in the game.
“I told (Edwards) that, out of the goodness of my heart, I was gonna give him two days off,” Kelvin deadpanned.
“Don’t worry about coming to practice (Thursday). Or Friday. And don’t come in early on Saturday, either. Just rest your ankle.”
The team has the next two days off and won’t meet early on Christmas. Despite all the injuries, Sampson seemed pleased with his team.
“These kind of games are what our culture is all about,” Sampson. “I just love the way we prepared. We didn’t play very good against Oklahoma State (a 12-point win). No apologies.
“They’re going to have bad games. So what? Let’s go, let’s fix it, and come out and play better. (Oklahoma State) is not the last bad game we’re gonna play. I just love the way we prepared Monday and Tuesday. We had a great film session last night and tremendous prep today.”
After seven games in 23 days, UH has the next five days off before the AAC opener vs. Cincinnati Tuesday night.