The challenges have been both great and small for eighth-ranked Houston this season, and the next obstacle might prove especially dangerous for the rolling Cougars if they aren't attentive.
Houston (26-1, 13-1 American Athletic Conference) travels to Greenville, N.C., on Wednesday to take on the scuffling East Carolina Pirates. The Cougars have won 11 consecutive games, secured their highest national ranking on the season and are playing with supreme confidence. And, they've finally generated the national attention to complement their play, with ESPN's College GameDay scheduled for its first visit on Saturday when Houston hosts UCF.
The mood on Saturday would be dampened significantly if the Cougars were to stub their toe against the Pirates, whom they defeated 94-50 at home on Jan. 23. Such a result seems highly unlikely given the respective trajectories of the two programs, but it's difficult for the Cougars to not have one eye focused on this weekend given all the corresponding hoopla.
"Well here's our little chance to shine," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Little old University of Houston jumping up, swinging with the big boys, and that's something to take pride in. I'm happy for our fans, I'm happy for our alumni, but more importantly, I'm happy for our players."
Given how intently Sampson coaches the Cougars, he will surely have their full attention on Wednesday. Yet, with Cincinnati just one game behind the Cougars in the conference standings, Houston can't afford to look ahead to a coronation.
"It can be any of these programs in the position we are today," Sampson said. "Look at us five years ago. No one would have ever thought College GameDay would be coming to the University of Houston, I know that.
"Next year it could be one of the other (AAC) programs. I wouldn't be surprised if it if's not Memphis or Connecticut or Cincinnati, SMU, Temple -- it could be anybody."
The Pirates (10-16, 3-11 AAC) snapped a five-game skid with their 85-81 victory at Tulane last Saturday, a win that came on the heels of a frustrating home loss against Tulsa. East Carolina had dropped 10 of 11 before completing a season sweep of the Green Wave, with two of the previous three losses coming in overtime by a total of eight points.
The Pirates' 77-73 loss to the Golden Hurricane provided a teaching point, and the results were immediate. Given the season-long struggles, the response against Tulane was gratifying, if not somewhat foreshadowed.
"This is part of the process of trying to learn how to win," Pirates coach Joe Dooley said. "The first step is staying in the game, which we're doing a better job of doing.
"I think what we're learning to do is we're learning how to play hard and compete to win. I think there's a difference. I think you can play hard, but that doesn't mean you're playing to win. I think they're learning how to compete and trying to win a game."
--Field Level Media
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