After two years coming off the bench, J’Wan Roberts found himself preparing for a different role with Houston’s men’s basketball team — as a starter.
This season, the St. Thomas native has played a key role both on and off the court for the Cougars, who have spent most of the season as one of the nation’s top teams — and now a contender for an NCAA championship.
Houston (31-3) — No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, and the top seed in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional — opens “March Madness” tonight against 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky in Birmingham, Ala.
This will be the Cougars’ fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament — minus the 2020 tournament, canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the 24th in the program’s history.
As for Roberts, this will be his third straight “Big Dance” — but he admits that this year’s tournament has a different feel to it than in past appearances.
“A little — it’s the same experience, but it’s a different team,” Roberts said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We’ve been working around different things, adjusting to players.
“We’re not where we want to be at yet, but we’re not running from it. We’re moving forward … and hopefully we’ll get to our goal.”
The 21-year-old Roberts, a 6-foot-7 redshirt junior forward, had spent the past two seasons as a reserve for the Cougars — last season, he was usually the first or second player off the bench in games.
However, with several Houston players graduating, Roberts was in position for a starting role — and the leadership responsibilities that go along with it.
He just had to put in the work to earn it.
“I had a different role, and a different approach to the game,” Roberts said. “I also had to be more of a mentor for the younger guys, the freshmen just coming in.
“I definitely had to adjust, work on some stuff going into the season. Basically, I had to lead by example — to let guys know how hard it is to win games, and how hard it is to play a top five team.”
Roberts was already considered a top-flight rebounder and rim protector for the Cougars; it was during the offseason that he began working more on the offensive side of his game.
“I was working on my jump hooks, and picking my spots,” he said. “I wanted to finish around the basket more. Basically, just doing everything with confidence now. Just knowing what I have to do, and having that different mindset coming into games.”
The results of Roberts’ offseason work showed on the court.
After averaging 2.7 points per game the past two seasons, Roberts is averaging 10.4 points per game entering the NCAAs. He’s also shooting a team-best 62.3% from the field, which puts him among the top 10 in the nation.
The improvement wasn’t lost on Houston’s opponents — or the coaches in the American Athletic Conference, who voted Roberts to the all-AAC second team earlier this month, as well as named him the league’s most improved player.
“I wouldn’t say that was a surprise,” in receiving the AAC award, Roberts said. “I knew all the work that I had put in, and I saw my numbers had increased. So I wasn’t too surprised, but I had worked hard for it.”
More important was Roberts’ role in the locker room with the Cougars’ freshmen — starting forward Jarace Walker, and reserves Emanuel Sharp and Terrance Arceneaux.
And his advice to them for the NCAAs? Just have fun.
“You know, this is something that you see growing up,” Roberts said. “As a little kid, you watch March Madness and you want to be in March Madness. So now you’re actually here. Ain’t no running from it now.
“So my advice to them, too, just go out and have fun. Play with your brothers that you have been doing the whole year. Stick to the script. Don’t try to do anything different because the lights are brighter. Don’t try to be Superman or try to impress somebody. Stay the course. And whatever you want to accomplish we will get it done.”