After winning the American Athletic Conference regular-season championship, Houston is heading back to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament as a No. 1 seed.
The Cougars finished 31-3 overall and had a 17-1 record against conference opponents.
Even though they finished the season with a loss to Memphis, this team is still positioned to make another deep run thanks to some key players and head coach Kelvin Sampson’s excellent system.
Marcus Sasser’s injury status
Senior guard Marcus Sasser had his best season as a Cougar and was named to the Associated Press All-America First Team earlier this week.
The 22-year-old was Houston’s leading scorer averaging a team-high 17.1 points per game and led the team in field goals made, 3-pointers and free throws this season.
Sasser didn’t play in the final game of AAC tournament due to a groin injury he suffered during the team's previous outing against Cincinnati. His absence subsequently factored into Houston losing to Memphis. Without their leading scorer, the Cougars couldn’t seem to find any offensive rhythm, which led Memphis to take control of the game early on and never look back.
Sasser could have played, but was held out for precautionary reasons, so he could have more time to heal and prepare himself for the NCAA Tournament. The overall game was meaningless, for Houston would have been a No.1 seed if they won or lost to Memphis.
The Cougars know they can not win a championship without their star player, so limiting his action early on may be a way to save Sasser for the long haul.
The senior guard did practice on Wednesday but was not at full strength, according to reports. Sasser seemed optimistic whether or not he would be able to play in the Cougars first NCAA Tournament game.
“If I can play, I can play. Even through pain” Sasser said when asked if he could play. “You never know when your last game is. I'm not trying to miss the game for nothing. For the most part, if I can go, I'm going to go.”
As it currently stands, there has been no decision on whether Sasser will play against No. 16 Northern Kentucky. If he were to miss this game, it wouldn’t be detrimental, as the Cougars have a deep roster and can count on others to step up.
“Whether Marcus is here or not, we're still Houston.” coach Sampson said.
The rise of Jarace Walker
Freshman Jarace Walker came to Houston looking to be challenged and because he wanted to learn, develop and become a part of something bigger.
He has more than fulfilled these goals by showcasing his skills multiple times throughout the course of the season.
Walker is a perfect fit on this team as he is defensive-minded, can create his own shots, and excels at securing rebounds.
The 19-year-old has the potential to be one of the best players in this tournament and can take over a game at a moment's notice.
Walker scored double-digit points in half of the games he played, and was one of the nation's best defenders throughout the season.
If Sasser is to miss the first game against Northern Kentucky, look for Walker to become the primary scoring option and lead Houston past the Norse with ease.
Kelvin Sampson’s system
When head coach Kelvin Sampson took over, 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 five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and has crafted a winning formula that gets the most out of his players every year.
His system works by instilling a defensive first mindset into his players and making sure everyone knows their roles on the team. Take Jamal Shed, J’Wan Roberts and Tramon Mark as examples. All three of them started out as bench players and earned their spots as starters by playing with heart, hustle and becoming great defenders on the court.
Shed has become a great point guard and led the team in both assists and steals this season. Mark is a solid 3-and-D player and Roberts led the team in rebounds.
Coach Sampson always gets the most out of his guys on defense, which makes Houston one of the best teams in the nation.
As it currently stands, Houston is the betting favorite (6-1) to win the NCAA Tournament according to Caesars Sportsbook and seem to have a favorable bracket.
As previously mentioned, Houston opens with Northern Kentucky and should win that matchup with ease. They would then face either Auburn or Iowa in the next round.
The Cougars should be favored in those games and could see teams such as Miami or Indiana in the Sweet 16. When the Elite Eight rolls around, there is potential for a Texas-sized matchup between the Cougars and either Texas A&M or UT, which would be a spectacle in of its own.
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 men’s basketball championship.