Before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament even begins, Selection Sunday always seems to induce some kind of controversy or raise eyebrows. While the Houston Cougars weren’t the victim of an egregious snub, they did suffer from some somewhat questionable seeding.
Head coach Kelvin Sampson’s team went 26-5 during the regular season, winning the American Athletic Conference (AAC) before storming to another championship in the conference tournament. But despite all their success, the Cougars’ somewhat weak conference and just one Quad 1 win prompted the selection committee to make them the No. 5 seed in the South Region.
However, Houston’s outstanding performances suggest it could dictate March Madness. The Cougars are breaking bracketology, and they’ve made a statement about their contender status in the process.
Houston defeated Illinois to advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament
Houston beating Illinois in the second round hardly matched St. Peter’s-Kentucky in terms of shock value. Still, the Fighting Illini had plenty of advocates believing they could make a run to the Final Four on the broad shoulders of Kofi Cockburn.
The Cougars put a swift end to that dream and continued their own march in this NCAA Tournament
Houston opened the contest on a 23-11 run, practically eliminating the threat of Cockburn from the game and harassing Illinois’ guards on the perimeter. The Illini showed tremendous resilience to climb back into the game, only for the Cougars to seize command in the final four minutes.
Kelvin Sampson’s team stifled dribble penetration and got buckets in transition on rebounds and run-outs. In the half court, guard Jamal Shead consistently attacked the heart of the defense and spurred tremendous ball movement. Houston also hounded the offensive glass, pulling down 15 offensive boards for the contest.
As they showed against Illinois, the Cougars do just about everything well. Perhaps the selection committee should have heeded their balance and efficiency numbers, rather than placing so much stock in the conference they play in.
When it comes to making the bracket for the NCAA Tournament, the selection committee typically emphasizes things like quality wins. Naturally, playing in a power conference gives teams greater opportunities to rack up Quad 1 victories.
Houston does not play in a power conference. It lost to Memphis twice during conference play before finally beating the Tigers and earning a sole Quad 1 win in the conference tournament.
However, the advanced numbers speak louder.
According to Barttorvik.com, Houston ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2022. Not to mention, metrics like KenPom and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) both endorsed the Cougars as one of the nation’s elite teams. Ken Pomeroy himself had quite the sarcastic message after Houston pulled away from Illinois on Sunday.
Compare those numbers to the Fighting Illini, for instance. Illinois had plenty of Quad 1 wins but ranked 46th in offensive efficiency since January. That mattered in March, as the Illini scored just 53 points in a near-upset loss to Chattanooga and had a hard time getting any semblance of guard playmaking against Houston.
In some ways, the Cougars’ success is more impressive because of what the group has endured. They lost top guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark fairly early in the season, yet have still thrived.
Can Houston continue its roll against top-seeded Arizona?
Will the Cougars keep the dream alive?
If the Cougars hope to make it to the regional final and keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, they’ll have to take down the Arizona Wildcats. It may actually be an ideal matchup for Houston.
Firstly, the Wildcats are coming off a grueling overtime victory against TCU. Additionally, Arizona turns the ball over and doesn’t exactly fill it up from beyond the arc.
Houston’s guards figure to swarm the ball and make life as difficult as possible on potential NBA draft lottery pick Bennedict Mathurin, with Jamal Shead and Kyler Edwards consistently going at Arizona’s backcourt players on the other end. Taze Moore is a terrific and long two-way wing who can cause problems after scoring 21 points against the Illini.
Moreover, the Cougars’ frontcourt tandem of Fabian White and Josh Carlton are deliberate screeners who move well without the ball and spot cutters, with White also spacing the floor. They’ll pull Arizona’s bigs, notably Christian Koloko, out to the perimeter and force them to guard.
If Houston can create turnovers and generate points in transition, they have an excellent chance at defeating the Wildcats. That’s especially true if they can shoot it a little better from beyond the arc.
The Cougars entered the tournament with a big question mark on their back. But they suddenly look like one of the most dangerous teams remaining, one capable of winning a national title and wiping away antiquated bracketology ideologies.
Stats courtesy of CBB Reference unless otherwise noted.