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The Case for Houston to beat Arizona: How to Watch, Preview, Prediction

Can Houston prove the analytics right?

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois
Jamal Shead leads Houston into its matchup against No. 1 Arizona.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

How to Watch

Date: Thursday, March 24

Game Time: 9:59 p.m. ET

Venue: AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas

How to Watch: TBS

Matchup: Arizona (1 seed, 31-3) vs. Houston (5 seed, 31-5)

Region: South

DraftKings Line: Arizona -1.5, O/U 145.5

Houston is making its third consecutive Sweet 16 appearances under Kelvin Sampson. After losing star guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to injury, for Houston to be in this position is extremely impressive.

Now the Cougars get rewarded with the opportunity to face their toughest challenge this season, upsetting No. 1 seed Arizona in San Antonio. Houston is coming as the five seed, but it is just a one and a half point underdog.

Betting action seems to favor the Wildcats. The schools are separated by just one spot on Ken Pom. The analytical mastermind has Houston had number two, one spot ahead of the Wildcats at No. 3.

Houston easily beat Illinois 68-53. The Cougars held Illinois to 38% from the floor and forced 17 turnovers. Taze Moore was the leading scorer with 21. It was Houston’s first win against a top-20 Ken Pom team this season. Houston took care of a dangerous UAB team in the first round 82-68. They held Blazer star Jordan Walker to just 6-for-19 shooting.

Arizona looked vulnerable in its second round game against TCU. The Wildcats needed overtime to survive against TCU in San Diego. Benedict Mathurin scored 30 points and made the game-tying 3-pointer with just seconds left.

The game was arguably the most entertaining game of the weekend, with a controversial ending on the final play. Should it have been a foul? No comment here, but the Wildcats were able to survive and advance.

Christian Koloko was dominant inside, scoring 28 points and grabbing 12 rebounds while shooting a hyper-efficient 12-of-13 from the field. Arizona took care of Wright State 87-70 in the first round. But the score was a little closer than the final score indicated as Wright State had within single digits in the second half.

Arizona was the popular pick to win the national championship and the overwhelming favorite to win the South region. As for Houston, many wrote off this Houston team in December after it lost Marcus Sasser.

But now the Cougars are just one game away from making their second straight Elite Eight. This time around, no one will discredit them for having an easy road to get there. Houston is a one-possession underdog, and it has the goods to beat Arizona tonight. Can Houston prove analytics matter than polls and selection committees? We breakdown to see why they can:

Key to Victories

Dominate the Offensive Boards:

Arizona leads the nation in overall rebounds. They have the tallest front court in the tournament. Koloko is a likely first-round pick at the center position. But we just saw TCU dominate Arizona on the glass with 20 offensive rebounds.

There isn’t a program that crashes the offensive boards like Houston. Houston rebounds over 35% of their misses and ranks third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Arizona ranks 195th in defensive rebounding rate, despite its size.

Each player in the Houston lineup is an elite rebounder. Hell, six-foot-eleven-inch big Azuolas Tubelis couldn’t be on the floor in the second half because the game got too physical for him.

Houston is the most physical team in the country. It won’t be intimated by Arizona’s size like most teams are. They are going to compete on the glass because that is what this program was built upon. It’s their biggest key to winning this game.

Forcing Turnovers:

Houston’s pressure bothers everyone - just ask Jelly Walker or Illinois’s trio of guards. It bothers everyone. It’s something you can’t really prepare for. The Cougars’ defense attacks like no other, and they are third in the country in steals. They are one of the few teams that can operate with full-court pressure for 40 minutes.

Turnovers have been the one problem with Arizona’s offense. It gave away 16 in the loss to TCU, 19 against Wright State and 64 total over the last four games. Arizona ranks 166th in offensive turnover percentage. The Arizona guards can play hero ball at times.

Offensive and Defensive Balance:

Houston is one of two teams in the country that rank in the top ten in offensive and defensive efficiency. That team is Gonzaga. Houston can get it done on both ends of the court. Houston ranks third nationally in defensive field goal percentage and third nationally in block percentage. They rank in the top 20 in two point offense. They have have been shooting well as of late.

Control the pace and win in the half court:

If Houston can control the offensive glass, it can get second chance opportunities. However, it also prevents Arizona getting easy points on fast breaks. There isn’t anyone in the American that plays with the type of pace Arizona does. The Wildcats rank fourth nationally in offensive tempo and lead the nation in transition buckets.

Houston, on the other hand, wants to grind teams out. Houston ranks 331st in pace and their defense ranks eighth in half court defensive efficiency per shot quality. On the other side, the Cougars rank 27th in transition defense despite hammering the glass.

You do not want to face this Arizona team on the run. In the half court, Arizona wants to run through the post. Koloko will face double teams every time he touches the ball near the basket. It will be up to Kriissa and Tubelis to hit open shots.

Can Kyler Edwards and Taze Moore defend Bennedict Mathurin:

After the performance against TCU, it doesn’t seem like anyone can stop Arizona’s star wing. Moore and Edwards are two of the few guys in the country who could be up to the task. Edwards, who came from Texas Tech, has been ask to guard top tier talent before.

Sampson showered the Arizona guard with praise.

“Whatever you call him, he’s the best guard we’ve seen,” Sampson said. “That’s not coach-speak, that’s the truth. I was in the NBA for six seasons, and he’s an NBA guy. He’s not going to go in and be a role player, he’ll start. … I mean, he’s a first-day starter for an NBA team.”

Cause for Concern:

Arizona’s length and depth. The only comparable team that Houston faced on it’s schedule was Memphis. The Tigers beat Houston both times. Mathurin and Dalen Terry on the wing can spell problems. Arizona not only has size but elite offensive skill in the front court.

Forcing Houston big man Josh Carlton into foul trouble, could spell problems for the Cougars. Arizona can give Houston a taste of their own medicine extending ball pressure with their wings. We saw Memphis implement this strategy. and it gave the Cougars plenty of problems both times.


I think this game is going to be tight until the end. Houston’s ratings are legit. They just have not seen the type of talent this Arizona team presents. To make up for that, Houston has the better coach here. Tommy Lloyd is great, but Sampson’s experience is a major edge here. He is one of the best coaches at making in game adjustments.

Houston is the type of team that is going to punch you in the mouth. Houston is going to get over 20 offensive rebounds, and Kriissa is going to miss enough open 3-pointer to give Houston a chance at the end.

Houston has two point lead late, and its top defense does enough to get the key stop. The Cougars controls the pace in this is a lower scoring game. Cougars win 68-66.

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