There were lofty expectations for the Houston Cougars entering this season, and they have lived up to the hype. Now is time for them to cash in with six wins over the next three weeks and claim the national title.
The Cougars rank No. 1 in KenPom. They are fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency and 11th in offensive efficiency. Of the last 20 national champions, 19 of them have ranked in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Houston is one of five teams in the field to fit into this category this season (along with Alabama, Texas, UCLA and UConn).
Kelvin Sampson’s team ranks second in the country in both scoring defense (56.5 points per game) and field goal percentage defense (36.5%). It boasts the largest scoring margin in the country by outscoring its opponents by 19.5 points a night. The Cougars are also seventh in rebounding margin (+7.5 per contest).
Houston is the only team to rank in the top five in the AP Top 25 every single week this season and spent the majority of the year ranked No. 1. It is one of four teams to enter the NCAA Tournament with 30 wins already. The others are Florida Atlantic, a No. 9 seed, and 12-seeds Oral Roberts and Charleston.
The team is led by American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Marcus Sasser, who is averaging 17.1 points and 3.2 assists per game. He has scored in double figures in all but four games. One of these contests was the conference semifinal against Cincinnati, during which he left with a groin injury after playing just nine minutes.
Sasser then missed the AAC title game on Sunday, which the Cougars lost to Memphis. His status and health are unclear for the NCAA Tournament at this time. His availability is one of the potential roadblocks for the Cougars.
| - @m_sasser0#ForTheCity x #GoCoogs pic.twitter.com/qoeGI8nJcb— Houston Men's Hoops (@UHCougarMBK) March 14, 2023
Houston is in a region that is loaded with great guards. Miami and Texas each have a trio of guards that rank among the best backcourts in the country. The Hurricanes have Isaiah Wong, Jordan Miller and Nijel Pack, and the Longhorns feature Tyrese Hunter, Marcus Carr and Sir’Jabari Rice. Other teams with stout guard play include Auburn with Wendell Green Jr. and Xavier with Souley Boum. Without a healthy Sasser, these teams could pose major problems for the Cougars’ hopes of getting to the Final Four.
The senior guard’s importance to the Cougars’ success was on display in the conference championship game, which was the only he missed this year. Houston struggled offensively as it shot 31% from the floor and 24% from 3-point land, both well below its season averages. Its defense also took a beating as the Tigers hit 62% in the first half, which powered the Tigers to a 15-point lead at the break.
However, coming up short of a conference tournament title is not the end of the world for the Cougars hopes of cutting down the nets on the first Monday of April. Six of last eight national champs have lost in their conference tournaments.
While Sasser is the catalyst for the Cougars, they have experience playing without him. Last year, with him sidelined, they went to the Elite Eight and came within a few possessions of reaching a second straight Final Four. The team was also without Tramon Mark for that run. He is one of four players who averaged in double figures this season.
The Cougars are in their fifth straight NCAA Tournament, which is the longest streak in program history, and boast a 31-3 record. It earned seven wins over teams in the field, including a pair of victories over Memphis, a win at Virginia and a 38-point route against Oral Roberts.
In addition to the loss to Memphis in the AAC title game, Houston fell to overall No. 1 seed Alabama by six points in December and to Temple by one point in January.
The Cougars are a No. 1 seed for just the second time in program history. The other time was 1983, when it went all the way to the national championship game before ultimately falling to Jim Valvano and NC State.
Based on recent history, as a No. 1 seed, Houston holds a strong possibility of being crowned champion. Since 1979, 26 of the 43 (60%) national champions have been a No. 1 seed. Each of the last five champs have been a top seed and 12 of last 15 have been on the No. 1 line.
Also, let’s not forget that the Final Four is in Houston this year. The Cougars have a chance to cut down the nets in their hometown.
On the 40th anniversary of Phi Slama Jama’s run to the title game, it is only fitting that the Cougars reach the mountain top and cut down the nets on April 3.