HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Cougars are hoping their new conference home gives them an assist in returning to national prominence.
After spending the last 17 years in Conference USA, Houston starts a new era in the American Athletic Conference - formerly the Big East - this season.
The Cougars won 20 games last season for the first time since 2009 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational after missing the postseason the previous two seasons. The last time Houston made the NCAA tournament was in 2010, when the Cougars fell in the first round to Maryland.
Coach James Dickey said the Cougars, as well as the rest of the league, will have great exposure with every game being televised, something Houston has not had in the past.
TaShawn Thomas, who averaged 16.9 points per game and led the Cougars with 9.8 rebounds, will lead the team this season along with Danuel House, who was Conference USA's freshman of the year a year ago after finishing with 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a game.
Houston returns 11 players from last year's team and adds transfer L.J. Rose but lost leading scorer Joseph Young, who transferred to Oregon in the offseason. Dickey said he likes the makeup of his team.
"I am excited about what our guys accomplished at the end of last year and going into the postseason," Dickey said. "TaShawn and Danuel along with the other players we have coming back, we have a tradition rich program that we want to get back to national prominence."
Five things to know about the Houston Cougars:
TUMULTUOUS OFFSEASON: The offseason was a mix of good and bad. Guy Lewis, who was the Cougars' coach for 30 years, including during the Phi Slama Jama era, was inducted into Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Former Phi Slama Jama player and director of basketball operations Michael Young also filed a lawsuit against the university to have his contract rescinded. The lawsuit was thrown out, but Young's son, Joseph, left the program with his father.
PICKED 7TH in CONFERENCE: Houston, which finished its final season in Conference USA with a 7-9 league record and in seventh place, was picked to finish seventh in the 10-team American by conference coaches. Louisville was a unanimous pick to win the conference, followed by Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati. Temple was picked to finish fifth, and SMU was ahead of the Cougars, who were picked ahead of South Florida, Central Florida and Rutgers. Thomas was picked as a preseason All-Conference second team member, the only member of the Cougars to earn an all-conference distinction.
IMPORTANT NEWCOMERS: Danrad Knowles and Rose will give Houston two big additions. Knowles was ineligible to play last season after signing with Houston to combine with House to give Houston a highly-rated signing class a year ago. Knowles, a 6-10 forward from Houston, will give the Cougars some depth in the frontcourt to go with Thomas. Rose, a transfer from Baylor, played in 33 games last season for the Bears as a backup point guard. The sophomore from Houston will be eligible to play this season after being granted a waiver from the NCAA.
SCHEDULE: The Cougars' non-conference slate is headlined by the Legends Classic in which Houston will host Lehigh and Howard Nov. 17 and 21, before taking on Stanford Nov. 25 and either Pittsburgh or Texas Tech in New York on Nov. 26. There is also a trip to College Station to take on Texas A&M on Dec. 4. The Cougars begin conference play Dec. 31 at home against Connecticut.
HOUSTON HAS TO DEFEND: Houston had little trouble putting up the points, scoring at least 70 points in 25 of its 33 contest last year and averaging more than 78 points last season, but the Cougars have to defend better. Houston allowed more than 73 points a game and allowed opponents to score at least 70 in 23 of the 33 games last year. The Cougars did finish 11-7 in games decided by 10 points or less a season ago - but the seven losses came during Conference USA play.