This Team Is A Work In Progress – And That’s Okay

It’s clear that many UH fans on Twitter, Facebook, other sites, and The Veer, the GoCoogs subscriber forum, are anxious and panicking about the offense. There’s no third scorer! They play hero ball! They won’t win the NCAA Tournament!

All of this about a 14-1 team that should be ranked #2 nationally tomorrow.

After hitting a little hook shot to tie the game at 54, J’Wan Roberts backpedaled down the floor, the crowd surrounding the court going wild. He didn’t celebrate the bucket but instead pressed his palms down and started talking to his teammates.

After the game and postgame press conference, I saw J’Wan leaving the locker room, and we walked down the tunnel together. He had his postgame meal in his hands, a to-go box of protein, and two rolls in a plastic wrapper. I asked about the palms down and what he was saying to his team. He looked at me, almost incredulously, as he often does, and said, “just chill.” The Coogs had not planned to come out with “the wrong attitude,” as Kelvin Sampson put it, nor give up the lead. But they had fought back and were where they needed to be. And J’Wan’s message to teammates was to stay focused and not get excited yet.

Just chill.

I think that’s also a pretty good response to the people worried about the offense, how it gets bogged down, how good teams clog the passing- and pick-and-role lanes, and how it often seems like the Cougars are playing iso ball.

Your concerns are valid, but it’s New Year’s Day, with more than half the regular season to go. This team has played 15 games and has 16 to go in the regular season. They’ve played eight weeks and have 9 to go before the AAC Tournament.

The team is halfway through the regular season, with three freshmen getting significant minutes in the eight-man rotation. Three freshmen plus Ja’Vier Francis.

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A year ago at New Year’s, UH had just lost Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, and the offense was much more precarious then. In that infamous Texas State game, UH lost 28 points, four assists, and three steals per game, while Jamal Shead had started just 10 games in his career. But that team grew up quickly and went on a Madness run.

Then, Kelvin Sampson used a 10-day break to reinvent the team. In 2023, reinvention will have to happen on the fly. The first part was adding new pieces, proving they have the talent to play at this level.

The next is development, which has already been occurring: Ja’Vier Francis has gone from an unsure baby moose wandering the forest to a legit big man on a top-5 team. And he’s made that transformation in less than a month. Likewise, Emanuel Sharp has surged in the past few games as fans are finally getting to see that killer release.

Emanuel Sharp // Photo by Mario Puente

Jarace Walker shows flashes of brilliance, but he’s still too unsure, too tentative, and too scared to mess up. That will need to be fixed.

But Jarace has J’Wan Roberts with him every step of the way. J’Wan was a role player last year but has become somewhat of an elder statesman. He had made just one start before 2022-23 (and that was Our Lady of the Lake), but Roberts is fast becoming Mr. Dependable. Despite battling a cold during the UCF game, he played the second-most minutes of his career and came alive in the second half. In four minutes, J’Wan had 8 pts, two blocks, an assist, and an offensive board that led to a bucket and a free throw.

Sharp is a new piece. Jarace is a new piece. Arceneaux is a new piece. Francis is basically a new piece. J’Wan is a piece still learning a new role. And Kelvin Sampson is still trying to figure out how they work together. He’s putting the team through hell, trying to make them tougher and mold them into a unit.

In the postgame after UCF, Kelvin talked about the grueling week he’d put his team through. The team returned earlier than expected on Christmas Day and went through a 7-hour practice/film/work session. Then practice Monday and Tuesday before flying out for Wednesday’s game. After that, practice Thursday and Friday and even an intense practice session Saturday morning before the game.

Last April, Brad Towns wrote on GoCoogs that “it is easy to tie your expectations to the limitations you see. That’s pretty much what fans and broadcasters spend their time doing.”

So many are tying their expectations to what they see. They believe this offense is the same one they’ll see in a month, two months, or in the NCAA Tournament. But Kelvin Sampson has repeatedly proven that his team continues developing right through the Dance and that the players you saw in the fall will be better when it matters most.

Just chill.

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