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Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson during the AAC conference college basketball game February 26, 2015 in Philadelphia.

Houston may be a football town, but the basketball isn’t bad, either. With the college hoops season officially underway, we wanted to highlight a few local teams and players worth keeping an eye on.

The best team in Houston

Phi Slamma Jamma is but a distant, blurry memory. Only three times in the last 30 seasons has the University of Houston qualified for the NCAA tournament. Earlier this decade, UH endured a series of high-profile transfers, losing the likes of Danuel House and TaShawn Thomas. No departure hurt more than Joseph Young, son of Michael, the former Cougar star and 15-year NBA vet. Before the 2013-14 season, Michael was demoted from his position as UH’s director of basketball operations. He chose to resign instead, and his son subsequently bolted for Oregon, where he went on to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year award.

Slowly but surely, though, things are turning around in the Third Ward. The school overlooked NCAA recruiting violations and hired former Oklahoma and Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson in 2014, a man who has won more games in his career than all but 80 coaches in the sport’s history. Like on the gridiron, the administration has spared few expenses to support Sampson's efforts; they finished a $25 million practice facility in January and are now renovating their home gym, to the tune of $60 million.

In Sampson’s second season on campus, the Cougars increased their win total by nine and jumped 152 slots in Ken Pomeroy's team efficiency rankings, one of the largest swings of any program in the country. And behind returnees Damyean Dotson and Rob Gray Jr., UH has a legitimate shot of qualifying for the Big Dance in 2017. Sports Illustrated predicts 11 American Athletic Conference victories (with Gray leading the league in scoring), which would put them right in the thick of postseason consideration.

They’ll need consistent stops on the defensive end to get over the hump, which was a hallmark of Sampson’s Sooner teams. “I didn’t come here to win games,” he said last winter. “I came here to win championships.”

The best player in Houston

To find the best player in Houston, just drive 1.9 miles from UH's Hofheinz Pavilion to the (hilariously named) Health & Physical Education Arena, at Texas Southern. Once there, ask around for sophomore Derrick Griffin, the reigning Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year. At 6’7” and 230 pounds, he won’t be hard to find.

Griffin arrived at TSU nearly by accident. The thick-chested and long-limbed forward originally signed to play both basketball and football at the University of Miami, but he failed to qualify academically. The Canes’ loss was the Tigers’ gain. In his first year at TSU, under head coach Mike Davis, Griffin made 67 percent of his two-point field goals, rebounded like a maniac, and blocked 6.5 percent of his opponent’s shots. He’s coordinated and explosive in equal measure. And his dismissal from the TSU’s football team this fall, for a violation of team rules, could prove beneficial on the hardwood.

“Last year, we got him for two days before we played a game,” Davis told me in October. “We just ran screen-and-roll, screen-and-roll, screen-and-roll. For a while, he was just filling in. This year, he's actually practicing every day, and he’s going to be in great shape.” It wouldn’t be crazy to see him land on the All-American list by season’s end.

Read more about Griffin and his Tigers in our forthcoming December issue.

The best player from Houston

Another player with All-American aspirations is De’Aaron Fox, a 2016 graduate of Cypress Lakes High and Kentucky’s new point guard. All he did in his first college game, this past Friday, was record 12 assists, a school record for freshmen.

Fox is the latest in a line of elite point guard recruits to sign with Kentucky coach John Calipari, dating back to his tenure at Memphis. That list includes Derrick Rose (2007), Tyreke Evans (2008), John Wall (2009), Brandon Knight (2010), Marquis Teague (2011), Andrew Harrison (2013), and Tyler Ulis (2014). “You can see bits and pieces of each of Calipari's former greats when you watch Fox,” writes SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell. “Like Wall, he's a speed demon who's a blur in the open court. Like a young Rose, he's an expert at finishing in traffic either above the rim with a dunk or by contorting his body for a layup. Like both, he has the ability to make you stop dead in your tracks and simply admire the outrageous blend of style and substance that makes his game as entertaining as it is practical.”

SI projects Fox will log 12.9 points per game and 3.9 assists, along with a more-than-respectable offensive rating of 117. His Wildcats, ranked second nationally, will almost certainly contend for the Final Four, after which he’ll jump to the NBA, where he’s a likely lottery pick. He’ll need to beef up his upper body strength and develop a consistent long-range jump shot, but his on-ball defense already plays. The sky’s the limit.

I chatted with Fox outside a Benihana in May, where he was having lunch with a couple of pals. He’s a personable kid with big brown eyes and springy braids. As a youngster, he played quarterback as well as hoops, and some of his dad’s friends thought he showed even more promise under center than he did on the basketball floor. Why didn’t he stick with Texas’ national game? “It’s Houston, man—it’s so hot out here! So I picked an indoor sport, and it worked out well for me.”

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