The rap on the University of Houston's castle door becomes more and more feeble these days.
The rap keeps knocking: "The Cougars just run and gun until they blow opponents' shanties down. They play out of control and they have no patience."
Inside the Cougars' kingdom--where the record is 30-2, the winning streak is 25, longest in the land, the national ranking is No. 1 and the preparation is for Louisville in an NCAA semifinal Saturday afternoon in Albuquerque--they just sit back and let the raps continue until the knuckles become raw and bleed.
Behold, they say, Cougars' law: Never confuse run and gun with out of control and have no patience.
"Sure, we love to run and gun," said Clyde Drexler, the 6-foot-7 junior forward who plays up in the clouds. "But it's a controlled run and gun. It's never one on one. It's always hit the open man on the break. Everything we do is controlled."
And furthermore, they say, behold the first amendment to Cougars' law: Never assume run and gun is the only way. Sometimes, it's run and shun gun. This is when Houston pulls up the fast break into its half-court offense, which moves patiently.
"Did you all notice," said Houston Coach Guy Lewis, answering the raps on the castle door after his Cougars' 89-71 vaporization of Villanova in the NCAA Midwest Regional final in Kansas City Sunday, "that the run-and-gun Cougars took 67 shots and disciplined, slowdown Villanova took 82?"
You search for answers about how these Cougars have advanced to their second straight final four and you are blitzed by the obvious: that it is because of the shot-blocking, slam-dunking revelry of Akeem Abdul Olajuwon, 7-foot center, and Larry Micheaux, the 6-9 forward, and Drexler.
And all of this is true enough. But the fact is, Houston--in its own way--is a thoroughly competent team in the half-court game, too.
Which is a nice supplement to the full-court rash of dash. And which is why this is the team expected to become this year's final one.
There are two keys here: first, how sophomore guard Reid Gettys, whose 203 assists this year broke the school record, is able to work the ball inside to Olajuwon or Drexler or Micheaux. If these front-line players miss their shots, they often volleyball offensive rebounds once, twice, three times off the backboard or off opponents' heads, before kindly Phi Slama Jama-ing the ball into the basket.
The second key is how the Cougars are able to turn a blocked shot by Olajuwon (who averages nearly five per game) or Micheaux into so many fast breaks. In doing so, the Cougars transform the half-court defensive game into the full-court offensive game. The transition to success.
Indeed, Houston's fury is so controlled that the Cougars haven't lost since mid-December. That is when Syracuse dumped them, 92-87, in the Carrier Dome and, in the very next game, when No. 1 Virginia shredded them, 72-63, without Ralph Sampson, in the Suntory Ball Classic in Tokyo.
Twenty-five victories of Houston momentum later, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim remembers, "Back then, Houston played a 1-3-1 zone defense. It was easy for us to score on. It was a terrible defense. We (usually Orange forward Leo Rautins) kept passing from the middle and kept getting layups.
"Now, Houston plays mostly man to man. They look more aggressive. I don't know if there's anyone who can beat them now."
Houston junior guard Michael Young averages 17 points per game. The front-line production is top-line production. Drexler averages 16.2 points, nine rebounds, Micheaux averages 14.3 points and seven rebounds and Olajuwon averages 13.5 points and 11 rebounds.
In a press conference Sunday, a reporter told Drexler: "A lot of people say Louisville has the best front line in the country."
To which Drexler responded with a cool Cougar confidence: "Yeah, and those people are probably from Louisville." Houston is a tough team to press, though certainly Louisville will try: "Drexler and Young are just too physical, too big. They can look over the first (press) trap," says Boeheim.
Lewis, who has constructed a 529-245 record in his 27 years at Houston, says, "Our philosophy is: if you press us, we're going to try to stuff it on the other end."
If you think this is a funky team on the court, you ought to watch them off the court. Make that off the wall.
Start with those those India-ink tattoos flexing around the biceps of Micheaux, the only senior among the Houston starters. One is a tattoo of an airplane, the other is of a heart. And you wonder why they call him "Mr. Mean?"
"Actually, he's a nice guy," Drexler says.
Then move on to reserve forward Bryan Williams, who bought a pair of dark Blues Brothers-type sunglasses when the Cougars were in Tokyo. Williams says he bargained the proprietor down from 2,000 yen to 1,500 yen. Now, Williams wears the glasses on the planes, around campus, after games, everywhere. "Kool Ray Williams," teammates call him.
"Every pair of glasses I've ever had, I've lost, but I just can't seem to lose these. I bought them as a joke. We had just lost two in a row so the air had kind of been let out of our balloons," says Williams.
Believing in a cosmic power, Williams said, "We're 25-0 since I bought them."
And then, of course, there are the fistful of stories about Olajuwon, the sophomore of escalating talents who spent his first 18 years living in Lagos, Nigeria. "People in America think I'm from the jungle, but Lagos is like the cities here," said Olajuwon, who speaks English, French and three different Nigerian dialects. "They don't understand what Africa is like because of the way (American) television shows it."
Drexler loves to tell the story of the time these Cougars visited Disneyland in late December, while out in California defeating Pepperdine, 93-92. It seems that several of the Cougars were kidding around with Goofy, the Disney dog.
That's when a confused Olajuwon approached, Drexler says, laughing. "Akeem was in shock. He said to us, 'How do you know the name of that dude?' We explained to him that we all have known Goofy since we were kids."
"Akeem just stood there and said, 'Oh.' "
And so goes the life inside the castle walls.