3 key components for the Houston Cougars' championship journey

Houston Cougars Jamal Shead, J'Wan Roberts
March Madness is upon us. Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images.

After winning the Big 12 Conference regular-season championship, Houston is heading back to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament as a No. 1 seed for the second consecutive year.

Even though the Cougars lost to Iowa State in the conference tournament final, this team is still well positioned to make another deep run thanks to some key players and head coach Kelvin Sampson’s excellent system.

1. The dynamic duo of Jamal Shead and LJ Cryer

Senior guard Jamal Shead has been nothing short of spectacular for the Cougars this season and was recently was named the Big 12 Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Year.

The 21-year-old has been a fixture for Houston since his rookie year and has become the unquestioned leader on this team.

Shead averaged a respectable 13.1 points per game this season, but doesn’t need to be the primary scorer for Houston to win games. He leads the team in both assists and steals this season and does an exceptional job of getting his teammates involved. That’s not to say Shead can’t take over a game offensively, for the senior guard scored over 20 points four times this season.

Overall, Shead might be the best player on this team, but the Cougars' best offensive threat comes from their other guard LJ Cryer.

Once Marcus Sasser was drafted, Houston knew they needed to replace him with another dynamic guard to pair with Shead and they brought in arguably one of the best players from the transfer portal.

The Katy, Texas, native transferred from Baylor to return home to play under head coach Kelvin Sampson and has been the Cougars best offensive player averaging a career-high 15.3 points per game this season. Cryer also brought with him years of winning experience, for he played in the NCAA Tournament multiple times with Baylor including coming off the bench on their 2020-21 championship team.

Shead and Cryer create one of the best backcourts in the country and both players were named All-Americans earlier this week.

With Shead’s leadership and Cryer’s prolific scoring, Houston has the potential to win any game in the tournament and either guard can take over at a moment's notice.

2. J’Wan Roberts’ injury status

Senior forward J’Wan Roberts has developed into one of the best overall players on this Cougar team thanks to his commanding defense and ability to score in the paint with ease. The 22-year-old is Houston’s leading rebounder and averaged 9.4 points per game this season. Needless to say, Roberts is just as important to this teams' success as the aforementioned backcourt duo of Shead and Cryer, so seeing Houston’s premier power forward get hurt was not a good sight to be seen.

Roberts was severely limited in the final two games of Big 12 Tournament due to a knee injury he suffered against Texas Tech. He was able to return the following day against Iowa State, but the Cougars fell behind early and coach Sampson took him out strictly for precautionary reasons.

At the end of the day, winning the Big 12 tournament wasn’t necessary for Houston to earn a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, and if the game was close Sampson would have kept Roberts in.

The Cougars will need Roberts in the lineup especially considering they lost freshman Joseph Tugler for the season to a broken bone in his right foot about two weeks ago. Losing their best forward off the bench isn’t ideal, but Houston can make up for his absence thanks to their depth.

In addition to Roberts, Ja’Vier Francis, Cedric Lath and Damian Dunn have stepped up in Tugler's absence and have provided the Cougars with the necessary depth to stay competitive despite losing one of their best bench players.

In the end, it would be hard to envision Roberts not playing in Houston's first-round game against Longwood, and they could always take him out of the game if the Cougars take an early commanding lead.

3. Kelvin Sampson’s system

When Kelvin Sampson took over as the head coach back in 2014, Houston basketball was an afterthought at best. Since then, he built this program from the ground up, and is on the verge of potentially leading his squad back to the Final Four and beyond.

Coach Sampson has taken the Cougars to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances and has developed a winning formula that gets the most out of his players every year.

His system works by instilling a defense first mindset into his players and making sure everyone knows their roles on the team. Take Jamal Shead, Ja’Vier Francis and Emanuel Sharp as examples. All three started out their college careers as bench players and earned their spots as starters by playing with heart, hustle and becoming great defenders on the court.

Shead has proven himself time and time again to be a great point guard and defensive leader on this team. Sharp is a solid 3-and-D player and Francis leads the team in blocked shots this season.

Coach Sampson always gets the most out of his guys on defense, which makes Houston one of the best teams in the nation.

“Our defense is our defense,” Shead said. “We’re No. 1 in the nation. We take pride in that. We turn you over, cool. But we’re going to try to make you miss. We’re going to make it as hard as possible every possession.”

Looking ahead

As it currently stands, Houston is one of the favorites to win the NCAA Tournament and will play their first game against the Big South Conference champions Longwood Lancers

The Cougars are -23.5 favorites to win this game according to FanDuel and shouldn’t have any issues securing a victory on Friday night.

Their following game would either be against Nebraska or fans could potentially see a rematch against Texas A&M in the next round.

The last time these two Texas schools faced each other, Houston defeated the Aggies 70-66 on December 16th at the Toyota Center.

Houston is a No.1 seed for a reason, they are one of the best teams in the nation and have all the necessary skills to go back to the Final Four and potentially win their first championship in program history.

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