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ElViento: The Conference USA tournament begins tomorrow at Cougar Field, and one thing is for certain: if Houston can’t beat the Rice Owls on Thursday (for the first time in six chances), their season will be over very soon.

First things first – the Coogs face Marshall on Wednesday. Houston won two of three against the Thundering Herd at Cougar Field earlier this month.

There are complicated scenarios in which Houston could advance to the championship game with a loss to either Marshall or Rice, but by far the easiest way in would be to beat both. In fact, if Houston wins its first two games, it will have clinched a spot in the championship game, and could relax against Southern Miss on Friday.

Head coach Rayner Noble has announced that Michael Goodnight will start the Marshall game, and William Kankel will get the nod against the Owls. He has not committed on a Friday starter, which makes sense, given how much more important the first two games are. If those two games are even remotely winnable in the late innings, Noble needs to throw everything he’s got out there.

For all of the disappointments of this season, there is no denying how well the Cougars can play when things are clicking. They swept a trio of Big XII foes at Minute Maid Park, won four of five in California, and most recently defeated a darn good home team in East Carolina twice when their season depended on it.

This kind of reminds me of the feeling that surrounded the men’s basketball team heading into the conference tournament. Despite a talented squad, the season has been a disappointment. So now the team has nothing to lose. So let’s sit back, and see what happens.

ElViento: The Cougar baseball team grabbed two of three wins from East Carolina on the road this weekend, avoiding the potentially embarrassing scenario of hosting a conference tournament and not qualifying to play in it.

In typical University of Houston style, more people have voiced concern about the above scenario than have actually attended a Cougar baseball game this year. Despite playing for a fan base that is fickle at best, and even though they have avoided doomsday, it has been a rough season for the Cougar baseballers. Barring a miracle post-season run, UH will finish below .500 for the second straight season. This has happened in spite of a distinct downturn in the overall talent of Conference USA this year, as compared to most. More frustrating than the fact that they have been losing is the manner in which they have lost. Through Saturday’s regular season-ending loss, the Cougar pitching staff had issued one hundred and twenty-two more walks and hit batters than the Cougar hitters have accumulated. That speaks to a general lack of discipline, which reflects poorly on the coaching staff. There’s clearly talent on this year’s team, it just hasn’t translated into wins, and somebody needs to be held accountable for that fact.

The argument is no longer whether or not head coach Rayner Noble deserves to stay, but whether or not UH can afford to buy out the last two years of his contract. The fact that Noble stayed home for Thursday’s game to watch his daughter’s graduation in the middle of a playoff push might indicate that Noble has one foot out the door.

If Noble resigns this off-season, it will cement an almost-eerie ability of athletics director Mack Rhoades to talk coaches into resignation. In less than a year since Rhoades took over, volleyball coach Bill Walton resigned suddenly, followed by men’s hoops coach Tom Penders, who had claimed he wasn’t leaving, then had a meeting with Rhoades, and immediately decided to resign. Women’s basketball coach Joe Curl has also resigned since Rhoades took over, but that was widely expected, given Curl’s lingering health issues.

Turning our attention to the present, UH is guaranteed to get to play three games in the conference tournament, as part of the new pool play format. One pod will contain the 1, 4 and 5 seeds, while the other pod will contain 2, 3, and 6. Each team plays the other two teams in its pod, and one team from the other pod. (1 vs 6, 2 vs 5, 3 vs 4) The top team from each pod by record (tiebreaker: head-to-head) advances to the championship game. Pending Saturday’s results, it looks like Houston is likely to earn the 5- or 6-seed. Either way, it means the Cougars will have at least one more shot at the Rice Owls, who have beaten UH in all five contests between the two teams this year.

Even a lot of the actual show-up-to-games fans didn’t expect Houston to make the conference tournament, and the coach may be out the door, so hopefully the Coogs can channel that “playing with house money” feeling, and play worry-free baseball. Lord knows this team is talented enough to make a run if they play their best.

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I have mentioned the personal tragedy surrounding incoming Cougar hoopster Fabyon Harris in this space before, but for a much better write-up, check out this piece in the Chicago Tribune.

Reading the article, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Harris and one of my all-time favorite Coogs, Anthony Alridge. While I don’t know that Alridge has the dramatic past that Harris does, consider the following parallels between the incoming guard and the former running back: Both missed out on being recruited by larger schools due to being of a smaller stature. Both draw raves for their “have to see it to believe it” quickness. And both will have a chip on their shoulder whenever they face SMU, due to academics. Harris pulled out of a verbal commitment to the Mustangs, after it became apparent that the coaching staff had no faith in Harris’s ability to earn a qualifying score on the ACT, and signed another player at Harris’s position. Alridge played his high school football in SMU’s backyard, and was miffed when SMU failed to recruit him. His desire to torch SMU became even more pronounced when then-head coach Phil Bennett implied that the reason his team had not recruited Alridge was that his academics were insufficient to get him into SMU.

Hope to see you at Cougar Baseball Stadium this week. It may be hard to believe, but unless the Coogs stun the conference for their second baseball tournament title in three years, this week will mark the end of the 2009-10 athletic calendar for the University of Houston. I’ll try to keep on finding interesting things to write about this summer, so stay tuned, and we can count down the days until football, together.

Go Coogs!

ElViento: Hey everybody, we’re famous! Sort of. National college football blog College Football Zealots e-mailed us recently, asking for our take on the upcoming Cougar football season, and I was happy to oblige. You can check out what I had to say here, and see if I did a fair job of previewing the team.

Okay, on to less self-congratulatory and more analytical (-ish) items.

The Cougar baseball team dropped a game against Rice on Tuesday, a game which was played for little more than pride. Rice got off to a 3-0 lead in the first half of the first inning, only to watch the Cougars storm back with a 5-spot in the bottom of the second. That lead held for a few innings, and all of the sudden it was “Oh-my-God-where-did-our-lead-go-and-why-is-our-third-string-catcher-pitching?”

(I wish I was making that last part up, but I’m not that funny. It actually happened.)

The final was 15-5, but it doesn’t count as a conference game, so it’s kind of a whatever. That’s what type of a baseball season this has been for UH. We lose to Rice by ten, get swept in the Silver Glove, and the only reaction I can muster is a shrug of the shoulders. And baseball is my favorite sport. If that’s not a desperate plea for a new coach this off-season, I don’t know what is.

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I know I’m not breaking any news on this one, but it came out recently that freshman forward Bryce Clark and junior forward Kahmell Broughton will be transferring out of the Houston basketball program. They join Desmond Wade in that decision, leaving the Cougars with six returning scholarship players: Zamal Nixon, Maurice McNeil, Nick Haywood, Adam Brown, Kirk Van Slyke and Kendrick Washington. There has been much speculation over Van Slyke’s health this off-season, so the list may ultimately be down to five.

In light of that, what is a reasonable expectation for Cougar fans to have of first-year head coach James Dickey? From where I am sitting, I only really want to see two things:

-The Cougars remain competitive. We shouldn’t be going 4-12 in Conference USA, or anything. It’s not that deep of a conference. Say what you will about Tom Penders, but if you don’t think he could grab a dozen kids from the campus rec center and field a competitive team in C-USA, you’re lying to yourself. Remember what he did in the 2008-09 season with zero returning starters?

-The incoming freshmen show promise. In fairness to Coach Dickey, he is trying to throw together a recruiting class at the last second. But we’ve  been told that he’s a great recruiter (and we passed on a couple of great recruiters to hire him), and Dickey has repeated that he’s not going to throw out scholarships just to fill a roster, so I want to see it. I want to see hope for the future.

How about you, Cougar fans? What do you want to see from Dickey and Co.?

Oh, this doesn’t really relate to next year, but I’d also like to see Chris Colvin transfer to UH. A national top-100 player out of high school, Colvin spent one year at Iowa State, before opting to transfer this off-season. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t announced a destination yet. Houston could look like an attractive option, as we figure to run an up-tempo style of basketball (which Colvin has expressed an affinity for) and we hired Daniyal Robinson as an assistant. Robinson was the assistant for the Cyclones who guided Colvin to ISU in the first place.

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I’m also way late on commenting on the Cougar softball team, whose season ended with a C-USA tournament semi-final loss to eventual-champion East Carolina recently.

After the Cougars came within one game of reaching the College World Series in 2008, the expectations were high heading into last season. Basically the entire lineup returned, but without ace pitcher Angel Shamblin, the season ended disappointingly. Without a doubt, 2010 was a step back in the right direction.  The Cougars ended up with a 30-24-1 record against a brutal non-conference schedule. A number of freshmen (including Bailey Watts, Brooke Lathan, Reina Gaber and Ashleigh Jones) showed a lot of promise for the future. On a team without a senior, there were only a couple of regular contributors who were even upperclassmen.

But most importantly, the pitchers looked good. The 2009 team proved (in case anybody wasn’t already convinced) that softball is a pitching-dominated sport. You can’t win without an ace. Watts and junior Amanda Crabtree both had solid seasons, and showed flashes of being that shutdown pitcher that Houston needs. Under head coach Kyla Holas, the Cougar softball team looks like it’s in great hands for the future.

That’s all for me for now. Hope to see you somewhere, praying for a series victory over ECU this weekend by the Cougar baseball team.

Go Coogs!

ElViento: Okay, after Sunday’s action, let’s take a look at the standings:

Rice and Southern Miss are in. That leaves seven teams battling for four spots. After that, it goes like this:

Memphis: 11-10 (Surprise team of the conference this year ends the season against Southern Miss.)

Marshall: 12-12 (The Thundering Herd have finished their conference slate.)

ECU: 10-11 (The disappointing Pirates will host Houston this weekend.)

UAB: 10-11 (The Blazers will finish the year at Rice.)

Houston: 9-12 (The Coogs will travel to ECU.)

Tulane: 9-12 (The Green Wave host UCF next weekend.)

UCF: 8-13 (The Knights will be at Tulane.)

So, if…

…Houston sweeps ECU, we are a lock, by my estimation. We’d be ahead of ECU and UCF, and we could conceivably end up tied with Marshall and/or Tulane with everybody else ahead of us, but we’d have the tiebreaker over Marshall. So we’re in.

…Houston wins two of three, they are probably in.  We’d have to find three teams to be ahead of. We would be ahead of UCF and ECU by tiebreaker and/or outright, so here are the other candidates. We would need at least one of the following to happen:

  • Tulane to lose at least two to UCF.
  • UAB to lose at least two to Rice.
  • Memphis to get swept by Southern Miss.

…Houston wins one of three, they are out, unless all of the following happen:

  • UAB gets swept by Rice
  • UCF wins exactly two of three against Tulane.
  • Given a four-way tie for sixth place, Conference offices shrug their shoulders and award the final tournament spot to the Cougars, since they’re hosting the darn thing anyway.

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Are ya depressed yet at the thought of the Coogs failiing to qualify for the tournament they host? Have no fear! I have fantastic videos which will psych you up for football season!

ElViento: Hey everybody, we’re going to do something a little more off-the-beaten-path today. I created a quiz using quotes from coaches who were rumored to be leaving their jobs. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine whether the coach in question ended up staying or leaving.

The quiz can be found here.

The cheat sheet can be found here. Click on over afterwards to see who said what.

Have fun!

ElViento: On Monday, it was rumored that the Houston Cougar men’s basketball team grabbed its fourth commitment under James Dickey.

The name in question was Fabyon Harris, a (5’10”? 5’9″? 5’8″?) diminuitive guard from Chicago. Harris has been a scoring machine for Hyde Park, and reportedly chose UH over offers from DePaul, Cincinnati and Kansas State.

Harris is on his third school commitment, after de-committing from Northern Colorado, and then a seemingly-mutual back-out with SMU after the Mustang coaching staff expressed concern over Harris’s ACT score. However, Harris ended up earning a more-than-sufficient 19 on the ACT.

When Harris signs on Friday, he will join an incoming class that includes junior college guard Darian Thibodeaux, JuCo forward Jonathon Simmons and Mikhail McLean of Second Baptist High here in Houston.

Harris has been through a lot of personal tragedy, having lost his mother, and having lost a brother, a cousin and a friend to street violence. It’s no surprise Harris is looking to get out of Chicago, and hopefully Houston ends up being a place where he can thrive as a basketball player and as an individual. Best of luck to him, and a welcome to the Cougar family.

ElViento: One of the bright spots in last year’s Cougar baseball season was the emergence of junior left-handed pitcher Donnie Joseph. The man they call DoJo put together a season that seemed to keep getting better as it went along. He ended up with a 2.16 ERA in 50 innings pitched, striking out 75 batters. Opponents hit just .186 against him. He had a rarely-seen presence on the mound. When you absolutely needed an out, you knew he would get it. I’m fairly certain I’ve told this story in this space before, but it’s worth repeating: in a win over (eventual College World Series participant) Rice that year, Joseph came on for the save in the ninth. He induced a fly out from the first hitter. With a 1-2 count on pinch hitter Daniel Gonzales-Luna, Joseph threw a beautiful pitch that froze the Rice hitter. It looked for all the world like strike three. Instead it was called ball two. The Cougar contingent loudly voiced its complaints at the home plate umpire. Joseph just took the throw from the catcher and marched back to the mound. He had that look. Sometimes baseball is incredibly predictable. I would have bet my life that he was going to strike Gonzales-Luna out on the next pitch. He did. He then struck out stud shortstop Rick Hague on three pitches. Ball game.

Another aspect that bears repeating: individuals don’t come much more high quality than Donnie. After every game, he would seek out fans and thank them for coming. When the team went through an extreme rough patch to begin the season, Joseph remained upbeat, refused to blame his teammates, and assured fans that things were going to get better. The season may not have ended where we all wanted it to, but things did get better, largely thanks to the clutch pitching of DoJo.

After the season, it became obvious that Joseph would be a hot commodity in the MLB draft. Cougar fans were faced with the awkward predicament of wanting to see Joseph do well for himself, while also kind of hoping he would get drafted low enough that he would choose to come back for his senior season. Heaven knows we could have used him this year. But the Cincinnati Reds drafted Joseph in the third round, and he understandably chose to sign.

Joseph’s professional career has thus far been a resounding success. He was placed in Rookie ball, where he got promoted after just 11.2 innings of work. That sometimes happens when you put up an ERA of under 1.00, with nearly twice as many strikeouts (11) as hits allowed (6). In 20+ innings of work at the A-ball level, Joseph’s ERA rose a bit, but he continued to show a remarkable ability to miss bats, with 31 strikeouts.

Then came the 2010 season, in which Joseph has put up kid-playing-a-video-game-on-a-level-that-is-too-easy-for-him numbers. In 11.1 innings, DoJo has allowed just one run on 5 hits, with 18 strikeouts against 2 walks. In his minor league career, Joseph still has not allowed a home run. A friend of the blog recently e-mailed me to inform me that, for his efforts, Donnie has been named Dayton Dragon’s pitcher of the month, and inspired bloggers to get a little silly.

A Scott & Holman congratulations, and continued best of luck to DoJo.

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In women’s sports, the Cougar soccer team recently signed Kylie Cook, named the best player in the Houston area by the Houston Chronicle. Meanwhile, the softball team will benefit next year from the services of a pair of sisters, Diedre and Haley Outon whose incredible story can be read here. Be sure to get your tissues ready before you click on that link. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (Thanks to CoogFans poster AustinCoog93 for the link.)

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The Houston Cougar men’s basketball program has recently announced its first two signees of the James Dickey era, a pair of forwards. First it was Midland JC transfer Jonathon Simmons, followed quickly by Mikhail McLean of Second Baptist High. Let’s see, a JuCo player, and a 6’7″ forward who only grabbed 4.4 rebounds per game in high school. Yeah, those don’t sound like the types of players Tom Penders was recruiting at all. But hey, at least they’re from the Houston area!

(*Electroshock collar activates*)

Aaah! I mean, look at McLean’s other offers! Boston College, Auburn and Arkansas! Simmons starred on one of the top JuCo teams in the country! Not bad at all.

Honestly, you can’t judge Dickey & Co. by what they put together with this recruiting class. They’re being forced to try and grab some impact players for next year at the last second. All sarcasm aside, Simmons and McLean could end up being good players for us. But it will be next year’s class that proves whether or not Dickey and assistants Daniyal Robinson, Ulric Maligi and Alvin Brooks have what it takes in the recruiting game.

Point Guard Desmond Wade is believed to be transferring, so let’s take a look at what the 2010-11 roster looks like so far:

Point Guard (2)

Zamal Nixon, Senior
Nick Haywood, Sophomore

Wing (4)

Adam Brown, Senior
Bryce Clark, Sophomore
Simmons, Junior
McLean, Freshman

Post (4)

Maurice McNeal, Senior
Kahmell Broughton, Senior
Kirk Van Slyke, Sophomore
Kendrick Washington, Sophomore

A few thoughts:

-Haywood was the Louisiana 5-A player of the year as a senior in high school, but he didn’t get much work as a freshman last year. Let’s hope Nixon is ready to play some big minutes at the point, and/or that Haywood is ready to step up.

-I think the big storyline so far has to be where the scoring will come from. With the loss of Aubrey Coleman, there isn’t a proven scorer on the roster. That will have to be addressed, one way or another.

-This could be a big team. Out of ten players listed, only three (Nixon, Haywood, Brown) would really qualify as guards. Everybody else is 6’5″ and above. “Big Team” sounds good, but the natural second part of that equation (“Slow Team”) may be a very real detriment. While Brown improved his defense last year, he’s not exactly a proven perimeter stopper. One wonders who’s going to guard the other team’s guards.

That’s about all for me for now. What say you, Cougar faithful? How are you feeling about next year’s team?