Culture / Sporting Life

Snubbed by His Own Conference, Corey Davis Jr. Pushes a 31-2 Houston Team to Brink of the Sweetest Selection Sunday Ever

The Real AAC Player of the Year Just Wins

BY // 03.17.19

MEMPHIS — The FedEx Forum is roaring, the crowd almost willing their team, the technical “road” team, back into the game. Everything University of Houston is being booed — even the marching band kids. Kelvin Sampson’s Houston team has a whole building, an entire city really, against it.

But UH has Corey Davis Jr.

And this year in college basketball, that’s enough. The most underrated star in the sport, the guy who gets snubbed for Player of the Year in his own conference in favor of a much less efficient, more high volume scorer, continues to power the only 31-2 team in America.

When Houston needs something, Davis will deliver it. He does it again in a 61-58 grind out of a win over hometown Memphis in the American Athletic Conference semifinals Saturday, pushing college basketball’s unexpected giant one win away from adding the tournament crown to its regular season championship.

Because Houston has heart — and Corey Davis — it’s still at least in the conversation for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament going into Selection Sunday, an incredible accomplishment considering how much the selection committee favors the game’s traditional powers.

There is nothing traditional about this UH team. It’s a true team in a college game that completely obsesses over its individual NBA ready stars — the Zion Williamson parade. It’s a defensive juggernaut that’s capable of still winning a game in which it doesn’t score a single point in the last four minutes and 40 seconds of action.

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These Cougars are anything but traditional. But there is still plenty special about them.

Starting with Davis.

“I’ve learned that when Corey gets this certain look in his eye, it’s time to get out of the way,” UH senior point Galen Robinson Jr. tells PaperCity. “I learned that quick. When he gets that look, he’s going to do something special.”

Davis gets the look several times in this AAC semifinal, with the crowd roaring “Let’s Go Tigers! Let’s Go Tigers!” and the No. 11 team in America wobbling a bit around him. The most telling sequence comes after Memphis opens the second half with a 5-0 run to pull within 36-31.

Cue a Corey Davis pull-up three followed immediately by a Davis strip of Memphis star guard Jeremiah Martin in the lane on the other end. Those two cold blooded plays on two different ends of the court, back to back, illustrate what sets Davis apart from all the other scoring guards in the country.

Corey Davis Jr. is clearly the AAC’s best player, even if  Cincinnati guard Jarron Cumberland won the actual Player of the Year Award. Cumberland scores more points per game than Davis (18.4 to 16.8), but he takes many more shots and hits them at a much worse percentage (40. 1 percent to Davis’ 43.1 percent).

And that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration Davis’ considerable defensive impact. Basketball’s analytics revolution apparently hasn’t made it to the AAC yet.

Title Time

Davis’ teammates seem more upset than he is that his value for a dominant 31-2 team wasn’t properly recognized.

“Yeah, it’s wrong,” Houston forward Fabian White Jr. says. “But Corey didn’t let it faze him so we didn’t harp on it too much. So we just turned to what was next, which was trying to win this tournament.”

The only thing standing between Houston and that now is Cincinnati and Cumberland in Sunday’s championship game, the same opponent Davis dropped 31 points on just a week ago to ensure that the Cougars didn’t share the regular season title. Now, if things go right for the Houston, Davis and friends will be cutting down the nets in the FedEx Forum as sweet prelude to watching Selection Sunday in a suite in the arena.

It’s a scenario that the Cougars have envisioned. Kelvin Sampson’s team worked to get back here after losing to Cincinnati in the conference championship game last March.

“We had a bitter taste in our mouth last year,” White tells PaperCity. “We were so close to winning the (AAC) tournament. We were so close to winning the regular season. We’ve already got one, but we’re not interested in sharing.

“Us as regular season and another team as tournament champion? Nah. We’re trying to take both.”

University of Houston Cougars Kelvin Sampson
If Houston beats Cincinnati in Memphis on Sunday, it will get to cut down nets for the second time this season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

While everyone else in America will be focused on brackets and who has the best path to Minneapolis, this UH team has another March moment it’s determined to take care of first. Sampson’s team is in its conference tournament title game despite that 4:40 scoreless streak to end the semifinal.

And the coach isn’t going to dwell on that close. Not this time of year. Not with so many high-powered regular season champs going down in their conference tournaments (Gonzaga, Virginia, Texas Tech, LSU, Nevada, down and down the heavyweights go).

“I’m not going to sit here and over-evaluate tournaments, conference tournaments,” Sampson says. “Not when every time I go back to my room, everybody’s losing and being sent home, and we won.”

Instead, less than an hour after White blocks Memphis freshman guard Tyler Harris’ potentially tying 3-pointer at the buzzer, living up to the coach’s challenge to play bigger, Sampson bounds into the UH locker room, bouncing his baby granddaughter Maisy Jade in his arms.

March is for winning in whatever way it takes.

Corey Davis, Impact Maker

This is the month when a player like Corey Davis Jr. becomes even more valuable. Davis still shoots 7 for 16 in a slog of a semi, when none of his teammates can get in rhythm and Memphis’ star (Martin) goes 5 for 24.

“His personality is like his game,” Sampson says. “He doesn’t have any highs or lows. Some kids are so emotional, they are like on the 85th floor and when things go wrong, they are in the basement. Corey is the same kid — and that carries over to his game.

“He never has a bad practice or a bad game.”

His teammates have come to depend on Davis, to embrace his often hidden greatness, and his quirks. Including the fact he hikes his long shorts up James Harden style.

“Corey is just smooth,” White says, grinning. “He’s a big-time shotmaker.”

One who seemingly shrugs the good and the bad off. “Absolutely not,” Davis quickly answers back when I asks if it bothers him that he wasn’t recognized as conference player of the year. Then, he praises Cumberland.

This is a team guy, one who is most comfortable when an opposing arena’s roaring and he feels like his team needs him most.

“There are times during a game where I’ll just feel like I need to be doing more than I’m already doing,” Davis says. “If I feel like we’re in one of those situations where we’re getting stagnant. Or we’re just not getting good looks.

“I just try to take on a little more.”

Corey Davis Jr. quietly takes on it all for a 31-2 team. If he keeps this up deeper into March, all of America will soon notice. They’ll be no overlooking him then.

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