Turnaround Tom Does it Again
This fall, the University of Houston touted its hoops team on highway billboards as the show. The Cougars won 18 games last season, coach Tom Penders's first at the school, doubling their 2003--04 total, but for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years, the billing seemed a bit overheated.
Last Saturday at Hofheinz Pavilion the Cougars proved their ad campaign was not hyperbole, upsetting 15th-ranked Arizona 69--65. One of the fans who mobbed the floor afterward carried a sign that read turnaround tom, referring to Penders's record of resuscitating programs at Rhode Island, Texas, George Washington and now Houston. The win over the Wildcats, which came on the heels of an 84--83 victory against No. 25 LSU on Nov. 29, marked the first time the Cougars had defeated ranked teams back-to-back since the 1984 NCAA tournament--the last of three straight Final Four trips during the glory days of Phi Slamma Jamma. For those who expected the depleted Conference USA to be Memphis and a bunch of stiffs in '05, well.... "We think Memphis is great, don't get me wrong," Penders says, "but we think we're just as good."
Houston's 3--1 start was triggered by the top gun in Penders's four-juco-player recruiting class, junior two guard Oliver Lafayette, whom the coach lured from Brown-Mackie College in Kansas with this pitch: "If you're afraid to take 20 shots a game, don't come here." Lafayette's response? "Bring it on"--and he has been a perfect fit in Penders's up-tempo attack, scoring 60 points (on 37 attempts) in the two upsets.
The Cougars' two Top 25 victims, ironically, have recruited away top Houston talent ( Arizona landed swingman Jawann McClellan, and LSU snatched guard Tack Minor), while the U of H has of late been largely ignored by local stars. But while both McClellan (who is academically ineligible) and Minor (academic violations) have been serving suspensions this semester, the lone Houston product on the Cougars' roster, junior point guard Lanny Smith, has been running the Show (dishing out 11 assists and committing just one turnover against the Wildcats) and helping spark a Hofheinz revival. "When I first got here, I could dribble the ball during games and hear it echo," Smith says. "For us to have the place packed now, it's special." -- Luke Winn