Optimism abounds for No. 17 Houston before opener vs. Lamar

·3 min read

For the first time in 37 years, the Houston Cougars will open a season ranked among the Top 25 in the AP preseason poll, perhaps the clearest indication of their ascent under veteran coach Kelvin Sampson.

The 17th-ranked Cougars (23-8, 13-5 American Athletic Conference last season) have won 20-plus games in each of the past five seasons and have been ranked a total of 30 weeks during the past three seasons with three Top 25 finishes. Houston will open this campaign Wednesday hosting Lamar at the Fertitta Center as a fixture in the polls while seeking to maintain program momentum.

With four returning starters and seven lettermen -- including standout sophomore guard Caleb Mills, the league's preseason Player of the Year -- back in the fold, Sampson has the talent to advance the program an additional step. But like others, the Cougars had their share of interruptions during the summer months while preparing for this season, and Sampson has taken efforts to make sure that his players manage the best they can in unprecedented times.

"It was unusual, to say the least, but we were no different than anybody else," Sampson said. "You just kind of deal with it.

"That's the new norm. To say that it's unfair, it's what it is. It's just the way the country is. You adjust to what you have and the situations you have. That's what we're doing."

Lamar (17-15, 10-10 Southland last season), like most programs nationwide, is approaching the 2020-21 campaign with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation. Having witnessed the postponements and cancellations experienced by college football certainly gives basketball programs reason for concern. Still, the opportunity to play games in the aftermath of last season's hasty adjournment is cause for celebration.

"I would say there is added excitement for this year just because of all the question marks that surrounded COVID," Lamar coach Tic Price said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that when we left the conference tournament last season because of the virus that we would still be dealing with it so many months later."

Ten of the Cardinals' 26 scheduled games are set to be played at the Montagne Center in Beaumont, with seven of their first eight on the road. Following the opener at Houston, Lamar will play four more road games prior to their home opener against Southern Mississippi on Dec. 15.

That represents a challenging start for any program. Opening the slate against the nationally ranked Cougars will offer a stiff test right out of the gate for the Cardinals.

"There is an old cliche in sports: us against the world. And that's the attitude we're going to have to take on this year," Price said. "We're going to have to be road warriors this season and have the mental toughness that goes along with that description. Obviously, we have to stay healthy, but I also believe the team that is the most disciplined off the court and can avoid some of the pitfalls that can occur during this time with COVID has a real chance of success."

--Field Level Media