In the interim between No. 6 Houston defeating South Carolina on Dec. 5 and its scheduled season restart on Sunday against Alcorn State, the Cougars gained four spots in the national polls without the benefit of a victory or, perhaps more accurately, the stain of a loss.
The host Cougars (4-0) paused team activities Dec. 8 because of positive COVID-19 test results and contact tracing. Following five consecutive weeks during which the Cougars did not return one positive test result despite thrice-a-week testing, all 15 players tested positive for the coronavirus.
What followed was a series of isolations for coaches and players, a stretch that came to a staggered conclusion Tuesday when six players were cleared to resume practicing. Houston coach Kelvin Sampson anticipates eight or nine players being available for the Cougars this weekend.
“That means nothing,” Sampson said of the Cougars’ place in the polls. “We haven’t earned that.
“When you put these 18- to 22-year-old kids in a room for 10 days, that’s why the ranking just doesn’t register with me.”
The Cougars postponed games against Sam Houston State and crosstown rival Rice, and canceled a matchup at Alabama scheduled for Dec. 19. Houston and Alcorn State announced the addition of their contest Dec. 15.
By the time the Cougars take the court against the Braves, two weeks will have elapsed since their last game. Houston hasn’t practiced as a full squad since Dec. 4, sparking the necessity to add a nonconference game before the AAC slate kicks off against Temple on Tuesday.
“We needed to play this game, but obviously it had to be played as long as … our doctor OK’d everybody coming back,” Sampson said. “Your hands are tied with who’s going to practice because they have to be cleared.
“The benefit is trying to get some rhythm going into conference play. The guys that are healthy are healthy; there’s no reason why they can’t play. … The guys that have been out for 10 days are out of shape. It’s as simple as that. It’ll take a while. That’s why this year is what it is.”
The Braves (0-1) are in a similar situation after having canceled six games following their season-opening loss at UAB on Nov. 25. Kurk Lee paced Alcorn State with 14 points, while Tyree Corbett added 11 points and seven rebounds in a game played seemingly ages ago.
The Cougars can relate. Having crafted a reputation for defensive vigor and rebounding largely dependent upon depth, the Cougars will try to maintain their ranking while short-handed.
“We’ll do the best we can to do the stuff we do,” Sampson said. “We’re not going to change. The thing you worry about is fatigue and foul trouble because of our numbers but we’ll figure it out and have to adjust. I’m actually looking forward to it.”
–Field Level Media