It takes toughness to advance in the NCAA tournament, and that’s exactly why Houston has been successful. Head coach Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars have what it takes to be considered serious contenders for a Final Four spot or even the make it to the championship game.
Houston often gets overlooked, but it’s not a team that should be taken lightly as Sampson has helped the Cougars find consistency with NCAA appearances every year since 2018 and Sweet 16 trips since 2019. Houston made it all the way to the Final Four last season – for the first time since 1984 – before falling to the eventual champion Baylor. The momentum carried over to this season, and the Cougars look even more resilient than before.
Things were not looking good in December when the team lost Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to injuries. Both were double digit scorers, with Sasser’s 17.1 points per game leading the offense. Sampson said Sasser had a terrific first 12 games, and that the team missed his defense and leadership the most. Nevertheless, the Cougars were able to adjust and win the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles.
“All coaches go through that, I don’t think that makes us special or unique,” Sampson said. “We all have to deal with injuries. I guess the blessing was that it happened early in conference season.”
The Cougars only had one Quad 1 on their resume before starting their NCAA tournament run, but they’ve proven they can compete with anybody.
Their most obvious strength is defense. Houston has the third best scoring defense in the nation, holding opponents an average of 59.0 points per game. The 5.2 blocks the Cougars register per game is 14th best.
They punched their Elite Eight ticket with a 72-60 win over No. 1 seed Arizona, the team with the third best offense in the country. That was no small achievement, but Sampson had it all planned out, saying he knew the Cougars had to control the pace and keep the game in the 60s by making the Wildcats uncomfortable.
Houston held Arizona’s leading scorer Bennedict Mathurin to 4-of-14 shooting. The Wildcats rank in the top five for shooting percentage, making around 50% of their shots. However, the Cougars were able to hold them to 33.3% from the field. They took advantage of every opportunity and picked up 24 of their points off of Arizona’s 12 turnovers.
THIS HOUSTON DEFENSE IS RELENTLESS!!! @UHCougarMBK #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/wONqLNzEZU— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2022
The Cougars defense is impressive, but it’s not all there is to the team. Houston has one of the best scoring margins in the country, just behind the No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga Bulldogs. They are also Top 20 leaders in both offensive and defensive efficiency in KenPom.com. Only four other schools – Gonzaga, Baylor, Arizona and UCLA – can say the same thing, and Houston is the only one still dancing.
Part of the Cougars’ success in the offense is sharing the ball. They average 16.6 assists per game, which is 12th best in the country. Even with Sasser and Mark out, the Cougars still have five other players scoring in double digits with senior guard Kyler Edwards’ 14.1 points per game leading the way. Sophomore guard Jamal Shead just joined the double-figure club after registering a career-high 21 points against Arizona. He leads the team in assists with 5.9 per game.
.@UHCougarMBK guard Jamal Shead (@Thejshead) on team’s toughness and identity: “It's our heart. We don't want to lose. We want to win for each other. We love each other so much. These guys are like really my brothers. This goes way beyond basketball.” pic.twitter.com/XSORq2c9JS— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) March 20, 2022
To get to their second straight Final Four, the Cougars will have to take care of another set of Wildcats, this time from Villanova. Houston will be keeping a close eye on Collin Gillespie. The Villanova senior guard averages 15.9 points per game and is shooting 41.5% from beyond the arc. He is making three three-pointers per game, which put him in the top 25 nationally.
As a whole, Villanova is a top 10 three-point shooting team, averaging 9.4 per game. Houston can challenge that, as the Cougars are 11th in the nation in three-point defense, holding opponents to 28.9% from that range.
If the Cougars can make it past Villanova, they will have to take on either No. 1 seed Kansas or No. 10 seed Miami. The Jayhawks are a top 25 offensive team, currently averaging 78.7 points per game.
For Sampson, it’s just about getting the job done and doing whatever is needed.
“We’re not going to win a lot of beauty contests, but victories don’t come with asterisks,” the coach said.