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The fierce urgency of now: Houston can use a big season

Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire

As November arrives and the college basketball season nears its starting point, the exuberance found on most Division I practice courts is palpable. Every team (except those ruled ineligible due to NCAA violations or a transition to NCAA Division I) carries Big Dance dreams, but that glittering goal is a lot more realistic for some than others.

To pick just one example, Florida State is a team which sorely needs to make the NCAA Tournament this season. Leonard Hamilton and the NIT have forged an overly cozy relationship in recent years, and “Ham” has to make better use of bacon — Dwayne Bacon — if he and the FSU fan base want to feel that the resources of the program are being maximized. Florida State needs to go dancing next March… or else.

Other programs don’t need to reach Bracketville. Other coaches aren’t in Hamilton’s position of losing the support of the fan base with another NIT ticket. Florida State, UCLA, Illinois — they and other programs have to hear their names called on Selection Sunday for this season to be tolerable.

The Houston Cougars do not exist on that tier, but of all the teams just below it, they might be the team in greatest need of a Dance card.

Houston isn’t facing a “have-to” season, but the Cougars are definitely about to embark on a “we can really use a tournament berth” season.

A very brief overview of the program — the circumstances in which it exists, and the recent events it is trying to learn from — easily establishes the fierce urgency of now at UH.

March 11, 2016: Rob Gray Jr. (2) of Houston drives to the basket during the AAC Championship Tournament between Tulane and Houston at the Amway Center in Orlando, FL. (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

March 11, 2016: Rob Gray Jr. (2) of Houston drives to the basket during the AAC Championship Tournament between Tulane and Houston at the Amway Center in Orlando, FL. (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

Houston emerged from the shadows in the winter of 2016. The Cougars made a run at The American’s regular season title. They handed SMU one of its five losses and gained the No. 2 seed in the AAC because SMU was ineligible for postseason play. Coach Kelvin Sampson — a Final Four coach at Oklahoma (2002) who also guided Washington State to the NCAA Tournament — worked his rebuilding magic. Entering the AAC tourney in Orlando, UH had as good a chance as any other team with SMU not in the picture.

The 11-team league created a 10-team tournament in SMU’s absence. Houston, as the 2 seed, thought it caught a break when No. 10 Tulane upended seventh-seeded UCF. Tulane was the worst team in the conference, and when third-seeded Tulsa got rocked in the other AAC quarterfinal on Houston’s side of the bracket, the path to the tournament final was wide open.

Then came this plot twist:

During Tulane’s game against the Cougars, the Green Wave fired head coach Ed Conroy… or at least, the decision to fire him after the game was leaked, depending on your interpretation.

Surely, Houston wasn’t going to lose to an opponent immersed in such turmoil. Yet, that’s exactly what the tight-as-a-drum Cougars did.

It’s hardly a novel occurrence: Team A sees the bracket path open up. Team A realizes the enormity of the opportunity in front of its nose. Team A, instead of being liberated, becomes paralyzed and hesitant. Team A loses.

Houston was given a baptism in the raging waters of tournament basketball.

Two years earlier, in 2014, the Cougars knocked SMU out of the NCAA Tournament with an AAC quarterfinal upset victory. Then, the Cougars were irrelevant in college hoops. They were the Tulane, the team playing with house money. In 2016, Houston felt the sting SMU absorbed. They had something to lose and played with a fear of failure more than a hunger for success.

SMU learned from its conference tournament disaster in 2015, winning the AAC regular season and tournament titles before making the NCAAs as a 6 seed.

Houston now has a chance to follow SMU’s path.

That’s a dramatic, compelling story in its own right… and yet it’s just part of the larger drama of Houston basketball as the new season dawns.

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After this next season, Hofheinz Pavilion — UH’s home arena — will be renovated. The Hofheinz family — a large presence in the City of Houston’s political and philanthropic circles — became involved in a fight over the name of the building after renovations are completed.

(Note: Roy Hofheinz is the man who came up with the idea to build a domed stadium. Yes, he’s the originator of the Houston Astrodome, making him a seminal figure and change agent in the history of American sports. Houston basketball, with its win over UCLA in the Astrodome in 1968, changed college basketball’s relationship to television and event staging forever.)

Houston basketball exists in a context of excitement and anxiety. Both hope and antagonism have entered into the new path the program is pursuing. In the 2017-2018 campaign — the first in the newly renovated arena, there might be immense pressure on Sampson to get his team to March. Whether that’s the case or not will depend on the direction and outcome of this next season. Sampson isn’t facing a win-at-all-costs year, but he would certainly make the transition to a new and updated basketball program a lot easier for fans and donors to accept if he can reach Bracketville four and a half months from now.

This isn’t a “have-to” season for Houston hoops, but the Cougars could sure use a pick-me-up after the Tulane loss and an offseason filled with clamor and contentiousness.

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