We’ve gotten the question a lot, from friends and various well-meaning fans of of the Houston Cougars alike: who is the staff going to bring in among legions of Division 1 men’s basketball players who have declared some level of intention to transfer?
And if you clicked a link believing we had insider knowledge of who Kelvin Sampson and the Houston Cougar coaching staff would be bringing in the fold, I have some bad news…
Truthfully, nobody will have a great idea who’s coming in until the staff sees fit for the general public to know. The Coogs saw a few different promising transfer targets last offseason (Trey Murphy, Chevez Goodwin, Justyn Mutts) pick other schools before landing a genuinely positive difference maker in Reggie Chaney from Arkansas. Chaney, I might add, was not on my radar or likely on the radar of anyone else who covers the UH program prior to his commitment.
The point is anyone writing about this topic is playing some kind of guessing game and I will use my big basketball brain here to sus out which players would be interesting and at least somewhat realistic (sorry, no Walker Kessler write up here) additions for the 2021-22 season.
So, here are some players in the Transfer Portal that would be intriguing additions for the Coogs.
Previous College(s): texas-austin, Rutgers
Hometown: Houston, TX
2020-21 Classification: Redshirt Senior
Young was a national top 100 prep player across the street at Yates High, which is actually not his most obvious connection to the Houston Cougar men’s basketball program. The most obvious one is that his dad Michael Young was a leading player, along with the likes of Drexler and Olajuwon, on the Phi Slama Jama teams and a longtime UH basketball staff member in the earlier part of this millennia (more on all of that later). The junior Young elected to start his career with the Texas Longhorns.
With the Longhorn basketball program Young played in 63 games (10 starts) in 2 seasons but never became a consistent offensive presence and transferred to Rutgers after the 2017-18 season. After sitting out a year, Young averaged 8.5 points/game as the Scarlet Knights’ top bench guy in 2019-20 and last season was 2nd on the team in scoring (14.1 points/game) and best in assists/steals as part of the first Rutgers NCAA Tournament team since 1991. Young, along with a good chunk of the Scarlet Knights roster, put his name in the Transfer Portal after a season-ending Round of 32 loss to Houston.
It took him a bit to get there, but by his most recent season Young had really developed into a good, tough scoring guard and a huge part of why Rutgers finished the year 16th nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. He wasn’t truly excellent at any one thing on the offensive end, but he was no worse than good in nearly every quantifiable offensive category.
The biggest potential roadblock Young joining the Cougar program has nothing to do with fit or skill, but rather the messy divorce between his father and UH athletics. I won’t rehash all of that and its worth noting said messy divorce did not occur while Kelvin Sampson was basketball coach or while Chris Pezman was Athletic Director. That still doesn’t mean there aren’t hurt feelings and I won’t pretend to know whether it’ll be enough to prevent Young from joining this program. If he did though, it would make the Cougars an immediate contender to make another deep run in March.
Previous College(s): Siena
Hometown: Rochester, NY
2020-21 Classification: Junior
Pickett made his intention to transfer known on April 8, making him one of the more recent additions to the portal among this group of hypothetical Cougar targets. But out of all the point guards I’m going to write about here, Pickett would be the one I’d be most excited to get in a Cougar uniform.
Playing for Siena in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (the MAAC, for short), Pickett was a 3-time 1st team all-conference selection and the 2019-20 MAAC Player of the Year. The Saints never finished worse than 2nd in the MAAC standings any of Pickett’s 3 years but were robbed of a 2020 NCAA tournament appearance by COVID-19 and lost to league champion Iona in this past year’s conference tourney.
In an extremely stop-start 2020-21 season Pickett had career-worst Field Goal % and assists/game numbers, but grabbed an impressive 6.3 rebounds/game (Pickett avg’d 4.6 rebs/game the prior 2 years) and has never posted worse than a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. On the defensive end Pickett’s never had a season with fewer than 2 blocks/steals combined per game and was 338th in block % as a guard. For comparison, DeJon Jarreau was 492nd nationally in block %.
I don’t have any questions about whether or not Pickett would fit with the off-court culture and on-court product of Houston Cougar men’s basketball. My question is whether he’ll turn down what will be no shortage of big name offers from programs that are closer than 1,756 miles away from his current school. This isn’t to say he won’t (see: Carlton, Josh) but it’s worth mentioning here.
Previous College(s): UNLV
Hometown: Pasadena, CA
2020-21 Classification: Junior
I’ll admit some level of bias here on my part, as a current resident of Las Vegas and someone who watched Hamilton in the flesh one of the last times I went and saw live basketball in February 2020. The neatest summation of Hamilton’s last 2 years for the Runnin’ Rebels is that he was a gifted, but not always efficient scorer on a couple of not very good UNLV teams.
Hamilton, a former 4 star and top 100 national prep player, was the last recruiting coup of previous UNLV HC Marvin Menzies (now 2 head coaches ago) and saw his role increase with the arrival of recently-minted Iowa St HC TJ Otzelberger in 2019. In his sophomore season Hamilton was the Runnin’ Rebels most consistent offensive threat at 16.0 points/game in an average of 27.3 minutes and was named 1st team All Mountain-West. This past season as Hamilton’s minutes skyrocketed, his efficiency numbers got worse and the team regressed in the overall/conference win totals as Otzelberger brought in an almost entirely new roster around Hamilton.
Now that Otzelberger has gone east, Hamilton understandably didn’t want to play for his 3rd UNLV coach in 4 seasons and entered the portal. What makes me think Hamilton could be a fit to end his college career in scarlet and albino is simple: rebounding. Hamilton, listed at 6’4”, averaged 5.5 and 6.0 rebounds per game in his last 2 collegiate seasons.
If I had to guess, Hamilton finishes his career at a PAC-12 school. And if he came to UH, he’d be going to a program with a much different level of defensive expectations, but the thought of pairing Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser with a talented, experienced guard who wouldn’t be asked to take nearly as many shots on this team is an intriguing one.
Previous College(s): Penn St, Iowa St
Hometown: Petersburg, VA
2020-21 Classification: Junior
There are a number of at least superficial similarities between Bolton and the player I just got done talking about: Bryce Hamilton. Both players are good, experienced guards who can score in a number of different ways and their college experience has been primarily on struggling teams that probably over relied on them offensively.
What stood out to me as a strong positive for Bolton over his 2 years at ISU was an ability to get to the free throw line. Bolton’s 84.3% free throw percentage from this past season was actually the worst of his career and he’s shown a consistent ability to draw fouls from opposing defenders. If there was any consistent weakness from the Cougars offensively last season, it was inconsistency from guys not named DeJon Jarreau at creating their own shot and for any flaws he has that’s not a problem for Bolton. He also shot above 50% on 2-point field goals this season, despite being asked to shoulder a fair amount of the Cyclones’ offensive load. And its also worth noting that these numbers didn’t dip against the highest level (Tier A) opponents Bolton faced and he was 4th in the Big 12 in assist rate.
Its worth noting that Bolton has only played on a good defensive team once in his college career: his freshman year (2018-19) at Penn St where the Nittany Lions were 27th nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. The Cyclones were not good defensively either of his 2 years in Ames and, like Hamilton, would be stepping into a program with a different level of defensive expectation. But that’s not an impossible thing to overcome and I think Bolton gives you an ‘insurance policy’ at point guard while Tramon Mark/Jamal Shead continue to develop and is a positive addition offensively.
Previous College(s): Stephen F. Austin, Salt Lake Community College, Nebraska, Prairie View A&M
Hometown: Austin, TX
2020-21 Classification: Redshirt Junior
Mack is probably the most well-traveled player on this list and as such, it might be a stretch to include him as a serious target for the Coogs. But Mack’s production at his last 2 stops makes him an intriguing potential add and more importantly, Mack would step into a position of need for the Coogs with the departure of DeJon Jarreau.
After a decorated one season at Salt Lake CC, Mack turned down some big names to play the 2019-20 season at Nebraska under 1st year HC Fred Hoiberg. Mack’s numbers in his first year against D1 competition were promising: 12.0 points/game (2nd on the team), 6.4 assists/game, 1.3 steals/game (3rd in the Big Ten), 18th nationally in assist rate and a 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (5th in the Big Ten). However, these numbers are in the larger context of Nebraska having a terrible season (7-25 & dead last in the Big Ten) and Mack getting multiple suspensions in the season’s final month, including the last 3 games of the season.
Mack chose to leave Nebraska and resurfaced at Prairie View A&M where he averaged 7.6 assists/game, was 14th nationally in assist rate and was 21st nationally in steal % for a Panthers team that went 13-0 in SWAC play in the regular season but lost to Texas Southern in the conference title game. Mack was the engine for a Panthers offense that was the 2nd most efficient in the SWAC and was 54th nationally in 2-point field goal %.
If he came to Houston, I think Mack would play a similar role as new arrival Josh Carlton will look to play: an experienced Division 1 player who in effect is an insurance policy for a younger player who hasn’t proven they can be a Division 1 regular yet (Kiryon Powell in Carlton’s case and Jamal Shead if Mack came here). Mack isn’t a guy you want shooting at a high volume, but he’s been one of the country’s most prolific distributors in the last 2 seasons and won’t be overwhelmed by a potential jump from the SWAC to the American.
I think the question here is whether Mack’s past run-ins with Hoiberg and size (he’s listed 6’2”) will make his addition a non-starter for Sampson for the Cougar staff. I don’t think either thing is a deal breaker, for what that’s worth.
Previous College(s): Northwestern
Hometown: Houston, TX
2020-21 Classification: Junior
If the last name is familiar to you as a UH fan, Miller is an older brother of recent Cougar QB enrollee Maddox Kopp from St. Thomas High in Houston and also played his prep basketball at Houston Christian. Kopp has played the last 3 seasons at a Northwestern program that’s struggled to build on their historic 2016-17 NCAA Tournament season, and you can argue over this stretch they’ve been the worst Big Ten men's hoops program not named Nebraska.
However, the older Kopp would be an exciting addition 2 of the 3 teams he’s played on have been well above average defensive teams per KenPom and he’s shown a consistent, if not spectacular, ability to knock down the 3-pointer over his college career. Kopp’s sophomore numbers in particular make him an intriguing add: he shot a hair under 40% on 3-pointers (65-164) and averaged 13.1 points/game. Any time a player can be reasonably efficient while volume shooting from deep, you give that player a second look. It is worth noting Kopp’s efficiency and volume numbers both declined in the 2020-21 season, and he only shot above 40% from the field once in any Wildcat game after January.
The big question is whether Kopp, who hasn’t ever been much of a volume rebounder, is able to meet the UH coaching staff’s standard on that end of the floor. Given that we’ve seen more than one example of previously rebounding-indifferent guards doing a 180 under Sampson, I doubt that will be a deal killer if the UH staff likes the rest of his game. With the likely departure of Quentin Grimes, bringing in a capable shooter from deep with local/family ties to UH is an idea worth considering.