The newness has worn off, now, which means that theoretically speaking the University of Houston basketball team should be a more congealed one in year two under coach James Dickey.
"Everybody's bought in this time," sophomore forward Alandise Harris said.
When he says this, he is wearing a regular tie that he has looped into the form of a bowtie, which will prove itself a merry distraction for the assembled media at UH's basketball media day on Wednesday. But Harris was not being (intentionally) diversionary, he was explaining in concise terms why he thought the Cougars lost so many close games last season.
In conference play, Houston lost both its overtime games and was 2-5 in games decided by five or fewer points. This was part of a 12-18 season that included a 4-12 Conference USA mark. Year one for Dickey was about establishing something, and year two is about building on it.
"I'm not sure we established it," Dickey said. "Certainly not the way we wanted to in terms of wins and losses last year. We went through a stretch where we lost five games by, really, one possession. That was very disappointing."
Harris has an explanation.
"Players that was left over from the other team, they didn't really play," he said. "All of us knew, the coaches knew. You didn't know what to expect."
These kinds of dismissals of the past are common in athletics, particularly at the beginning of new seasons, particularly when the previous season was disappointing. The previous team's chemistry always takes a beating this time of year. But in this case there probably is something to it. Two players backup guard Nick Haywood and backup forward Kendrick Washington left the program this offseason to look for new teams.
That also is not uncommon among players who find themselves playing for a coach that did not recruit them. But Houston also had four seniors on last year's team and whether or not they were gruntled or disgruntled, Harris' point is that it is now clear the Cougars now have a roster full of players who want to be there.
This is largely because half the roster is new. Eight of Houston's 14 players have never played a game at UH before. This is good, but it also is bad.
"We're young, but that's not really an excuse for us," Dickey said. "We've got some talent."
The Cougars mostly highly touted newcomer is power forward TaShawn Thomas, who chose Houston over Alabama, Colorado, Minnesota and Texas Tech, among others. Hearing Dickey describe him is like listening to someone read a list of "things basketball players do."
"He's a player that has the ability to get it off the glass and handle it, very good in the open floor, can pass the ball, excellent around the basket for a freshman, can finish, long around the basket, can block shots," Dickey said. "His jumper's a little inconsistent."
Fortunately, offense was not Houston's major malfunction last season. The Cougars ranked near the top of the conference in field goal and 3-point percentage, but were ninth in rebounding margin and last in defensive rebound percentage, making it difficult for them to run the way Dickey wanted to.
Thomas and 6-foot-9 juco transfer Leon Gibson should help in that area. But while Houston likes its new talent, the Cougars will have to be led by the few players they have that have played for Dickey.
Thibodeaux is the most natural leadership candidate. For one thing, he is a guard. For another, he led the team in minutes played last year, when he averaged 8.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. Houston also will lean on sophomore big man Kirk Van Slyke, who started 16 games last year, and forward Mikhail McLean, who averaged 9.2 minutes.
Maybe most importantly, everybody knows what they're in for, and they're up for it.
"We'll look at those three guys that played a lot of minutes last year for not only production, but for leadership on the court," Dickey said. "They know what our coaches stand for, what we believe in."