Houston claimed an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the American Athletic Conference Tournament, but were going to the dance, anyway. The Cougars dominated almost everyone who came into their path, rolling up a gaudy 26-3 record to date, including 17 wins by 17 points or more. Houston comes into their Sweet Sixtenn matchup with Syracuse on a nine-game win streak.
The Cougars’ three losses came all came on the road in conference play, as they dropped contests at Tulsa, East Carolina, and Wichita State. Tulsa pulled out their one-point win on a pair of foul shots with one-tenth of a second left in the game and Wichita State held on late for their win. Houston’s loss to East Carolina is the out of character one on the Cougars’ resume. The Pirates finished last in the AAC and just 8-11 overall, but blitzed Houston in the second half, outscoring them by a dozen in their 82-73 win. East Carolina committed a mere seven turnovers in the game and made 11 triples.
Statistical analysis is very favorable to the Cougars, as Ken Pomeroy has them listed as the fourth-best team in the nation, ranking #7 in adjusted offensive efficiency and #11 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Houston should be considered a legitimate national title threat, as in the last decade, eight teams ranked in the top 15 of both offensive and defensive efficiency claimed the national title.
The Cougars have come by that gaudy ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency fairly, as they are the stingiest defense from the field in Division One, allowing opponents to shoot a mere 37.3 percent from the floor. Their opponents have also made just 28.3 percent of their shots from three-point range, the fifth-lowest mark in college basketball, and force turnovers on 19.1 percent of their opponents’ possessions. That defense also slows down opponents, making them grind out possessions.
Kelvin Sampson has primarily settled on an eight-man rotation. Four players have started at least 25 games for the Cougars, with Reggie Chaney supplanting Brison Gresham late in the season as the fifth starter. Houston offers similar height to Syracuse, with no one on their roster listed taller than 6’8”, but their big men offer more bulk, weighing in the 225-230 pound range.
The Cougars feel free to let it rip from distance, attempting 25.7 three-point shots per game, nearly 42 percent of their field goal attempts. They are pretty accurate from deep at 35.8 percent, which is good for 81st in the nation. When those shots miss, though, is when Houston shines, as they are second in the country in offensive rebounding rate, grabbing 39.7 percent of all misses. For a comparison, perpetual bad Syracuse matchup North Carolina is tops in the nation.
Houston also protects the ball, ranking 13th in the country in turnover rate, handing it to their opponents twice every 15 possessions. That equates to under 11 turnovers per game due to their slower pace of play.
Houston runs a three-guard lineup, led by Quentin Grimes, who claimed both the AAC Player of the Year and AAC Tournament MVP awards this season. A 6’5” guard who played at Kansas for one season before transferring, Grimes paced Houston with 18.1 points per game and 91 three-pointers at a 41.7 percent rate. Grimes has led the team in scoring in both tourney games, totaling 40 points while making 9-of-17 three-point shots.
Marcus Sasser (6’1”) and Dejon Jarreau (6’5”) join Grimes in the backcourt. Sasser looks for three-pointers, as nearly two-third of his attempts this season were from long range. He connected 66 times from beyond the arc, but shot only 32.7 percent from deep. While he made at least six threes in a game three times this year, Sasser is in a 17-for-74 (23.0 percent) cold streak, including an 0-for-5 performance in their last game. Jarreau does a little of everything for Houston, averaging 10.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while being named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. An occasional three-point shooter, Jarreau made 29 triples this season at a 36.7 percent rate. Also of note is that Jarreau was dealing with hip discomfort in the early rounds of the tournament.
6’7” forward Justin Gorham could be a handful for the Orange to deal with, as he leads Houston with 8.6 rebounds per game, claiming nearly four of them on the offensive end. Gorham also averaged 8.5 points per game on the season, making half his shots from the floor, including 17 triples at a 36.2 percent success rate.
Reggie Chaney (6’8” forward) and Brison Gresham (6’8” forward) share the fifth spot in the starting lineup. Both are inside players on offense and anything they contribute in the scoring column is found money. Both shoot over 57 percent from the field and take the ball to the hoop with bad intentions, looking to dunk almost everything, but have four double-digit scoring games this season combined.
The two other main reserves for the Cougars are 6’5” guard Tramon Mark and 6’8” forward Fabian White, Jr. Mark does not offer strong perimeter shooting, but is the top offensive option off the bench, averaging 8.3 points per game and reaching double figures ten times on the season. White was expected to be a medical redshirt this season after tearing his ACL last May, but returned to the team and has played in Houston’s last ten games. He was one rebound shy of a double-double in just 20 minutes against Cincinnati in his second game back.
A wild card in the backcourt for Houston is Cameron Tyson. In limited play this season, Tyson has made 35 three-pointers at a 40.7 percent clip, including games of nine and ten threes. Tyson has only played 191 minutes on the season, but could be an option against SU’s zone defense.