It hasn’t taken Houston freshman Jarace Walker long to figure out what coach Kelvin Sampson wants to see out of his players.
“He focuses on defense and rebounding and playing hard before anything,” Walker said. “That’s the culture of the program.”
And it’s the reason the Cougars (4-0) are ranked No. 3 heading into Sunday night’s game against Oregon (2-1) in Eugene, Ore.
Walker, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward, is considered a likely lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. Through four games, he’s second on the Cougars with 13.0 points per game — Marcus Sasser leads at 16.8 — and is averaging a team-high 7.3 rebounds.
“Just watching his progress, Jarace reminds me of tic-tac-toe,” Sampson said. “There’s an X and then there’s an O. There’s a X and O. Pretty soon we’ve got to start stringing some Xs together, some Os together. Consistency.
“Where Jarace is now to where he is going to be a month from now, two months from now, I think he’s just going to continue to blossom.”
In an 83-48 victory against Texas Southern on Wednesday in the Cougar Classic, Walker had 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting and six rebounds. That came two days after scoring just two points without a field goal against Oral Roberts. He also shot 3 for 14 for eight points in his collegiate debut.
“I thought he played good in the first game of the season, regardless of what the numbers say,” Sampson said. “It’s how I evaluate him that matters. I think the toughest thing for young kids, whether it’s the NBA, college or high school, ninth and 10th graders, they are going to have ups and they are going to have downs. They are going to have highs and they are going to have lows. It’s just the way it’s going to be. The youngest players are the most inconsistent. You say, ‘Why doesn’t he do this every night?’ Because he’s 19 years old, a freshman.”
What has Walker learned so far?
“Really just how hard they play,” he said. “It makes you want to take it to another level when you see a brother down on the floor for a loose ball and taking charges. It’s just a family.”
Oregon was No. 21 in the preseason rankings before a 69-56 home loss to UC Irvine on Nov. 11.
The Ducks had their best offensive output of the season Tuesday in an 81-51 victory against Montana State, shooting 53.3 percent from the field with five players in double-figure scoring.
Freshman center Kel’el Ware came off the bench for a team-high 16 points and seven rebounds.
“He played hard and his defense was much more active,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “A much better game with much better purpose.”
Will Richardson had 12 points and six assists, Quincy Guerrier added 11 points and seven rebounds and Nate Bittle and Keeshawn Barthelemy scored 10 points apiece.
The Ducks got a scare when 6-11 N’Faly Dante, their leading scorer in the first two games of the season, went down late in the second half without being touched. The senior had knee surgery two years ago.
“His hip’s been bothering him and he hit it on that play,” Altman said. “I think he’ll be OK. Gonna take a couple days off here and let him rest it a couple days, but I think by Friday he’ll be ready to go.”
–Field Level Media