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How has Houston seemingly improved despite losing so much

The Cougars are playing their best basketball despite losing two of their best players midseason

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament South Regional-Arizona vs Houston
Jamal Shead has grown into his role has been huge for this Cougar team.
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

When Houston reached the Final Four last year, many saw it as a restoration to greatness for a long dormant program. Kelvin Sampson let a host of talented players back to a place they hadn’t been for over 30 years.

This year’s Cougar squad lost a lot from that team. Two of their best guards, Quentin Grimes and Dejon Jarreau, went to the NBA, and Justin Gorham didn’t use his COVID year. Big losses for sure, but many talented young players were returning, including two of their top five contributors, Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark.

Then, in less then a one-month span in December, both Sasser (toe) and Mark (shoulder) were lost for the year. Both were double-digit scorers. Sasser, in particular, was off to a hot start, averaging nearly 18 points a game.

And yet, the Houston Cougars are once again on the doorstep of a Final Four. They’ve looked good doing it too, handling UAB, Big 10 regular season champ Illinois, and top-seeded Arizona in a game that they controlled from start to finish. How have they done it, given what they’ve lost?

The answer begins where this team is rooted: on the defensive end. No matter who he’s been able to recruit (and to be sure, he’s been able to recruit) he gets his guys to buy into his system, and his system’s core is the defense.

Active and physical. Not afraid to help, especially in the post. At one point in the season, they had allowed the fewest paint attempts of any team in the country and currently they are second in the nation in 2-point field goal makes allowed.

So that opens it up from the perimeter, right? Well, certainly opponents take more shots from out there, but the percentage is still low – under 29 percent, 11th best in the country. Athleticism, crisp rotations, strong closeouts are perhaps unsung parts of this defense. Add it up, and they allow the lowest field goal percentage to opponents in the entire country.

Anyone, even those without the greatest shooting or offensive skills, can bring their full effort to wreak havoc on the defensive end. Sampson’s gotten that out of his players.

On the other end, Houston only returned 44 percent of its scoring from last year, but everyone has chipped in to fill the void, especially new additions from the transfer portal. Taze Moore, a four-year player at Cal State Bakersfield, acquainted himself well with the AAC and averages double figures. Josh Carlton, who had fallen out of favor with UConn last year, averages nearly 12 points per game.

Of course, with Sasser and Mark out, it can’t entirely be a “win by committee” approach. Leaders need to step up, and they have for the Cougars in the form of Kyler Edwards and Fabian White.

Kyler Edwards, the Texas Tech transfer who was on the Red Raiders’ 2019 Final Four team, has been hot of late, averaging nearly 17 points per game in his last seven games and shooting 38% from deep during that stretch. His comfort with the NCAA’s biggest stage is apparent: in the tournament he’s scored 59 points combined in his three contests, making 15 of his 29 triples.

White averaged just over ten points per game before Sasser’s injury. From their first game without Sasser through the end of their conference tournament, excluding a game against Tulane where he only played three minutes with back tightness, he averaged nearly 16 points a contest.

A scary prospect for opponents: the senior in his fifth year with the program hasn’t even really gotten going in the tournament yet. He scored 14 against UAB but totaled just 10 points and 12 rebounds in his last two outings combined.

Perhaps the most instrumental piece has been point guard Jamal Shead. Last year, as a freshman, he was a reserve player. This year he’s been the team’s primary ball handler, leads the team in assists at nearly six per game, and he also developed as a scorer, pitching in 10 points per game as well. As the season has gone on, and more has been asked of him, he seems to get more and more comfortable, something that’s been a true X factor of this team.

Houston’s team was known last year as being a rare elite team with poor shooting (outside of the top 200 in the country). This year, they’ve improved to 37th in the country. But even though their shooting is not elite, their offensive rebounding is. Last year, they pulled in 13.3 offensive rebounds per game, good for eighth in the country. This year they’ve upped it to an astounding 14.3 offensive rebounds and third in the land. Extra possessions have carried their KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency rankings from solid to elite (eighth ranked).

A defense that travels. A balanced offense that has stepped up across the board. Improved shooting. Elite offensive rebounding. That’s a formula to replace what you’ve lost.

Houston takes on Villanova in San Antonio at 6:09 ET on Saturday, March 26. DraftKings has the line currently at Houston -3 (-160 ML), Villanova +140 ML and O/U 127.