HOUSTON EARNS NO.1 SEED
Here are the keys to another Cougar's conference championship
After finishing the regular season with a 26-5 (15-3 conference) record, the Houston Cougars look to earn their second consecutive American Athletic Conference Men's Basketball Tournament championship.
Last year, this team won their conference tournament, earned a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament and finished with a Final Four appearance. This squad looks to continue that trend as the #18 ranked Cougars obtained a number one seed in the AAC.
Although Houston finished with a better record last season, this year’s team had to overcome injury issues in addition to losing four of their five starters from last year's Final Four squad.
Coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff wasted no time during the offseason as they added three key players from the transfer portal in Josh Carlton from Connecticut, Taze Moore by way of CSU Bakersfield and Kyler Edwards via Texas Tech.
The trio started in almost every game and developed instant chemistry in coach Sampson’s system.
Junior guard Marcus Sasser finished last season as the team’s second leading scorer (13.7 PPG) and was in position to take over as the number one offensive option, but suffered a season ending toe injury in December.
A similar fate happened to sophomore guard Tramon Mark who played in seven games before missing the remainder of the season due to shoulder surgery.
Without their two best guards, coach Sampson inserted sophomore Jamel Shed into the starting lineup. The Texas native was no stranger to the court, as he played a significant amount of minutes last season off the bench during their Final Four run. It was a seamless transition to have Shed take Mark’s spot in the lineup and become the floor general Houston needed.
Replacing the high scoring Sasser would be accomplished by committee and not one particular individual stepping up. The aforementioned transfer trio of Carlton, Edwards and Moore all had their spectacular performances throughout the season and proved why they were perfect fits for Sampson's system.
The stellar showcases of the transfer trio and the improved play of fifth-year senior Fabian White Jr. put Houston over the top most games.
The 6’8” forward is the longest tenured Cougar on this squad and averaged a career high 13.2 points per game this season.
White came off the bench last season as he was recovering from a torn ACL and proved to be an integral part of Houston’s depth during their Final Four run.
This season saw White return to the starting lineup and showcase why he continues to be a threat on offense and defense, as he averaged a team best 1.6 blocks per game.
It took no time for this new group of starters to develop chemistry in coach Sampson’s defensive first style of play.
"These guys have worked hard," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "They've listened. They've followed instructions. They believe in the culture of our program. They've embraced it."
Houston outscored their opponents by double digits in 22 of their 26 victories this season, and reached as high as the number six ranked team in the country. This massive success put Houston atop the AAC early on and led to a regular season conference championship.
The AAC Tournament will begin on Thursday at Dickies Arena in Ft. Worth and will conclude on Sunday.
Houston’s first game will be Friday at noon as they await the winner between East Carolina and Cincinnati.
The Cougars won all but three of their conference games this season as they lost on the road against SMU, and suffered a season sweep at the hands of the Memphis Tigers.
For some reason, coach Penny Hardaway’s team seems to play their best ball against Houston year after year. This season Memphis won at the Fertitta Center by 10 points on February 12th, and defeated the Cougars again on Sunday at home by 14 points, Houston’s worst loss this season.
The latter could be explained due to the fact the Cougars locked up their regular season conference championship earlier in the week, but a coach Sampson led team wouldn’t just throw away a meaningless game at the hands of their rival to end the season.
Memphis possesses the biggest threat for Houston to win back-to-back AAC tournament championships, but the Cougars haven't lost to a conference opponent three consecutive times in a season since coach Sampson’s first year as the head coach in 2015 against Tulsa.
As long as Houston doesn't overlook any of their conference foes (especially Memphis) it's safe to say that the Cougars should leave Ft. Worth on Sunday as conference champions once again and earn a spot to their 4th NCAA Tournament in five seasons.