Sampson’s Houston Cougars have passed early tests

The spotlight in NCAA Division I basketball always shines a little brighter this time of year when conference play commences. In the state of Texas, the TV cameras tend to follow the power programs at Texas A&M and Texas. But the competition also promises to be fierce among the schools outside the Big 12 and the SEC, as well. Here’s a breakdown on how 18 mid-majors in the state are faring leading into conference play:

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE

University of Houston

Record: 10-2

RPI: 62

Top player: Guard Rob Gray (20.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday, at South Florida

The skinny: Coach Kelvin Sampson’s team has played well so far, knocking off power programs Wake Forest from the ACC and Arkansas from the SEC.

SMU

Record: 10-3

RPI: 67

Top player: Guard Shake Milton (17.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.8 apg)

Conference opener: Wednesday, at home, vs. Central Florida

The skinny: SMU probably isn’t as strong as last year’s 30-win team. But the Ponies have registered impressive victories over the Arizona Wildcats and the USC Trojans. The win over USC avenged a loss to the Trojans last spring in the NCAA tournament’s round of 64.

CONFERENCE USA

UTSA

Record: 7-6

RPI: 242

Top player: Guard Jhivvan Jackson (17 ppg, 41 pct., 3-pt shooting)

Conference opener: Thursday at home vs. Rice

The skinny: Offense averages 87.2 ppg, but can the Roadrunners rebound and play defense? Jackson, Keaton Wallace, Deon Lyle and Nick Allen all have been shooting the ball well lately. UTSA lost by four at Tulsa, by 12 at Oklahoma and by 10 at Nebraska. If UTSA wins 10 conference games, fans would be happy. NCAA chances? Probably a long shot.

Rice

Record: 3-10

RPI: 304

Top player: Guard Connor Cashaw (16.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday at UTSA.

The skinny: It’s a new season for the Rice Owls, who open conference play this week. But Rice is in a tailspin, on a three-game losing streak, and needs to turn things around quickly. Could be a long season for first-year head coach Scott Pera.

North Texas

Record: 7-6

RPI: 192

Top player: Guard Roosevelt Smart (17.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday at UTEP

The skinny: First-year coach Grant McCasland led his team to three straight wins, including two in overtime, before losing at Georgetown 75-63 last week. Lost by 10 recently at Oklahoma and by 19 at Nebraska. Middle of the pack finish in C-USA would be considered a success after last year’s 2-16 record.

UTEP

Record: 5-7

RPI: 273

Top player: Guard Keith Frazier (14.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday at home vs. North Texas

The skinny: Season took a bizarre turn on Nov. 28 when veteran coach Tim Floyd announced his retirement following a home loss to Lamar. Assistant Phil Johnson has moved up to interim head coach. Miners are 4-2 under Johnson. UTEP could make some noise in conference if healthy, but 7-foot center Matt Willms is battling a wrist injury.

SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE

Incarnate Word

Record: 5-5

RPI: 293

Top player: Forward Simi Socks (15 ppg, 51.5 pct FG, 5.5 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday, at McNeese State

The skinny: UIW has posted only a 1-5 record against Division I opponents. Turnovers have been a major problem lately in losses at UTEP and Florida. But the Cardinals have shot the ball much better than they did earlier at Houston and Gonzaga. Eligible to play in the Division I postseason for the first time, goal should be to finish top eight to qualify for SLC tournament.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

Record: 3-7

RPI: 345

Top player: Guard Joseph Kilgore (16.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday, at Central Arkansas

The skinny: A&M-CC had a 24-12 record an reached the CIT tournament final a year ago. But this season has been a struggle, as the Islanders remained winless against Division I competition (0-7) with an 85-63 loss at Ole Miss last week. A&M-CC averages 66 ppg.

Stephen F. Austin

Record: 11-2

RPI: 61

Top player: Guard/forward Kevon Harris (19 ppg, 50 pct 3-pt shooting, 5.7 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday, at Southeastern Louisiana

The skinny: The Lumberjacks appear to be primed for an SLC title run. They have won close games at Louisiana Tech and at LSU, a power conference team in the SEC. They also lost by one point in SEC country at Missouri.

Lamar

Record: 8-5

RPI: 191

Top player: Forward Colton Weisbrod (15 ppg, 9 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday at home vs. Houston Baptist

The skinny: Coming off a 19-win season last year, the Cardinals raced to an 8-1 start before losing their last four. In their latest games, the Cards lost close ones in Las Vegas to UC Davis and North Carolina A&T. Lamar played well early in the season with wins against Tulsa, Coastal Carolina and UTEP. Veteran coach Tic Price is in his fourth full season at Lamar.

Abilene Christian

Record: 8-5

RPI: 208

Top player: Guard Jaren Lewis (13.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.5 spg)

Conference opener: Thursday at the University of New Orleans.

The skinny: Like the UIW Cardinals, the Wildcats can play in the SLC tournament this year for the first time after completing a four-year transition to NCAA Division I. ACU looked good recently, winning four in a row, including victories over Bowling Green, Air Force and Texas State. But they have since lost two of their past three. Losses have been on the road at Lipscomb and at nationally-ranked Texas Tech.

Sam Houston State

Record: 6-7

RPI: 266

Top player: Forward Christopher Galbreath, Jr. (15.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg)

Conference opener: Saturday night at Abilene Christian.

The skinny: Coach Jason Hooten has registered winning records in five of his seven seasons at Sam Houston. The Bearkats have won 89 games over the past four. So, nobody should count them out just yet. But they are struggling, having lost four of its last five coming into SLC play.

Houston Baptist

Record: 4-9

RPI: 284

Top player: Forward Josh Ibarra (16 ppg, 10 rpg)

Conference opener: Thursday at Lamar.

The skinny: Houston Baptist’s fortunes took an unfortunate turn in San Antonio when forward Josh Ibarra went down with an injury. He has been out three games since. For the Huskies to contend in the SLC, they will need Ibarra’s double-double presence on the floor.

SUN BELT CONFERENCE

UT Arlington

Record: 9-4

RPI: 82

Top player: Forward Kevin Hervey (23.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg)

Conference opener: Friday at Coastal Carolina

The skinny: Hervey, who ranks sixth in the nation in scoring, has lived up to billing as the preseason choice for Sun Belt player of the year. The Mavs should contend for the title and an NCAA berth. Posted non-conference wins vs. BYU, Rice and North Texas. Dropped close games at Alabama, Northern Iowa.

Texas State

Record: 7-6

RPI: 334

Top player: Guard Nijal Pearson (14.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.2 spg).

Conference opener: Friday at Appalachian State

The skinny: An up and down non-conference performance by the Bobcats raises questions about their viability as an NCAA contender. But don’t count out Coach Danny Kaspar, who knows how to get the best out of his team when it counts.

SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE

Texas Southern

Record: 0-13

RPI: 164

Top player: Demontrae Jefferson (23.4 ppg, 3.4 apg)

Conference opener: Monday, at home, vs. Southern (La.)

The skinny: Despite being winless at this juncture in the season, coach Mike Davis’ Tigers should contend for the SWAC title and the conference’s NCAA automatic berth after playing a tough schedule, including road games at Gonzaga, Ohio State and Kansas.

Prairie View A&M

Record: 2-11

RPI: 167

Top player: Zachary Hamilton (18.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg)

Next game, conference opener: Friday at home vs. Jarvis Christian; conference opener Monday at home vs. Alcorn State

The skinny: Prairie View is expected to challenge Texas Southern in the SWAC after playing close on the road at New Mexico State, Hawaii, Tulsa and New Mexico.

WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE

UT Rio Grande Valley

Record: 6-8

RPI: 276

Top player: Guard Nick Dixon (20.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg)

Next games: Non-conference home games Saturday vs. Hampton and next Tuesday vs. Our Lady of the Lake, followed by WAC opener Jan. 6 at Missouri-Kansas City.

The skinny: With New Mexico State, Utah Valley and Cal State Bakersfield looking strong, coach Lew Hill’s team is a long-shot to win the WAC title.

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