KEYS TO THE GAME

3 Houston Cougars x-factors that could swing the pendulum in bout with Duke

Houston Cougars Kelvin Sampson
Houston faces Duke on Friday night. Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images.

After narrowly defeating Texas A&M in overtime (100-95) the Cougars are heading back to the Sweet 16 and will face-off against Duke.

This will be the first time these two basketball powerhouses will play each other in program history, and Houston may have the upper hand thanks to some key players and a defense that can rival any team left in the NCAA Tournament.

Containing Duke’s stars

The Blue Devils defeated both Vermont and James Madison easily in their first two games of the tournament, thanks to some prolific scoring performances from freshman guard Jared McCain and elite play from potential NBA lottery draft pick Kyle Filipowski.

Containing these star players will be the number one priority when it comes to defeating Duke.

The Cougars have one of the highest rated defenses in the country and have multiple players who can slow down Duke’s dynamic duo.

Houston guards LJ Cryer and Jamal Shead are more than capable of handling the defensive assignment on McCain, and Filipowski can be contained by either J’Wan Roberts or Ja’Vier Francis.

Sure the Blue Devils have other players who can score when needed like Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach, but if Houston were to limit the production of the Fililposki/McCain duo and force Duke’s other players to step up, it would give the Cougars a much better chance of securing a victory and advancing to the Elite Eight.

Staying out of foul trouble

Houston’s starters got into major foul trouble early on and it nearly cost them in their previous outing against the Aggies.

Ja’Vier Francis and LJ Cryer fouled out before the start of overtime, and their absence was certainly felt. Guys like Damian Dunn and Mylik Wilson were able to step up, but not having both Francis and Cryer in overtime was nearly detrimental to Houston.

Sophomore forward Emanuel Sharp fouled out in overtime and after hitting a 3-pointer, and Jamal Shead left the game with 18 seconds left.

The Cougars might have lost four starters in their previous outing, but were able to walk away victorious thanks to a clutch free throw from Ryan Elvin, and the team was able to hold the Aggies scoreless in their final few possessions.

Houston has the talent to defeat any team left in the NCAA Tournament, as long as their star players stay out of foul trouble.

Trust the guys that brought you here

Over the last four seasons, the Cougars have been one of the best teams in the country thanks to an elite defense year after year, and head coach Kelvin Sampson finding the perfect players for his system.

Senior guards LJ Cryer and Jamal Shead have developed into one of the best backcourts in the country, and either one of them has the capability to take over a game thanks to their stellar play.

Cryer is Houston’s leading scorer this season (15.5 points per game), and has the ability to get hot at a moment's notice, just as he did against Texas A&M.

Shead has been one of the best players in the country this year, and is the unquestioned leader of this team.

The 21-year-old is a prefect point guard for coach Sampson’s system, as he leads the team in both assists and steals, and is essentially a second coach when he is on the floor.

Shead is one of the best facilitator’s in the nation and does a stellar job of getting all of his teammates involved as well.

Another player who can heavily impact a game is Emanuel Sharp, who scored a career-high 30 points in his previous outing against the Aggies.

Senior J'Wan Roberts has been another key piece to Houston's success this year, and has been arguably the third-best player on the team, behind only the aforementioned duo of Cryer and Shead.

The 22-year-old came into the tournament with some injury concerns, but has looked good in his previous two games.

Roberts played 33 minutes against the Aggies, and was the only starter not to foul out of that game.

Needless to say, the senior forward looks healthy and will be a much-needed scorer/rim protector to have during the NCAA Tournament.

All four of these starters are essential to Houston’s success and provide excellent defense in addition to having the ability to take over a game with ease.

As it currently stands, the Cougars are a 4.5-point favorite to defeat Duke according to most odds. So long as Houston can play up to their standards and their starters stay out of foul trouble, there is reason to believe the Cougars can walk away victorious on Friday night and advance to the Elite Eight.

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