Men’s basketball looking to pounce on wounded Mustangs
The Houston Cougars take on old rival SMU on Thursday in the 81st game between the two teams.
Recent history has not been kind to the Cougars, as they are 1-5 against SMU during head coach Kelvin Sampson’s tenure. That one win came in 2016 when Houston upset the 12th ranked Mustangs 71-68 at Hofheinz Pavilion.
But Houston holds the series lead with 48 wins to 32 losses in more than 60 years of matchups.
The first time they faced off in NCAA was in 1956 during both teams’ best eras. Doc Hayes led SMU to an 89-74 win over Guy Lewis’ Cougars in the first of just three games over the next 11 years.
The biggest match between the coaching legends was when Houston defeated SMU in the Elite Eight of the 1967 NCAA tournament.
Since then, the two teams have rarely been strong at the same time. The longest winning streak in the rivalry is nine wins in a row by Houston from February 2005 to February 2010.
But this year, the Cougars will face an SMU team that is limping to the finish line.
Injuries abound for SMU
One of the first things to notice when looking at SMU is the youth on the roster. The Mustangs’ roster has five freshman, two sophomores, three juniors and just two seniors in the lineup.
They appear built for the future but are already competing at a high level.
Despite their inexperience, the young team has taken down three ranked teams, Wichita State, USC and Arizona this year and have had a strong case to make it to the NCAA tournament.
But two season ending injuries struck the Mustangs last month, and that has hampered SMU.
SMU lost junior guard Jarrey Foster against Wichita State on Jan. 11 when he tore his ACL. Before that, he was second in points per game, third in assists per game, and first in rebounds per game for the Mustangs.
Then they lost freshman forward Everett Ray, a strong bench player, when he broke his foot warming up against Tulane on Jan. 20.
Lastly, junior guard Shake Milton, SMU’s leading scorer, injured his hand and had to miss their game against Tulsa on Feb. 1, and he is out indefinitely according to SMU head coach Tim Jankovich.
Junior guard Jahmal McMurray has filled in for Foster and has averaged 15.2 points per game, which is more than Foster was scoring, but his rebounding and passing has not been as good.
Freshman Elijah Landrum took Milton’s place in the starting lineup against Tulsa but scored just eight points in 23 minutes compared to Milton’s usual 18 per game.
Without their best scorers and depth issues, SMU struggled to keep up with Tulsa despite senior guard Ben Emelogu II scoring a career best 24 points.
Houston will need to take advantage of the weakened, inexperienced SMU roster.
Cougars need to capitalize
The Cougars are coming off a close win against UCF in Orlando that was reminiscent of the Cincinnati game.
In both games, UH earned a big lead off of good defense and shooting accuracy but lost it in the second half.
The saving grace for Houston was that their shooters did not cool down even though the defense did, and UH was able to get out of Orlando with a win.
After a quiet night against Cincinnati, senior guard Rob Gray put up 20 points against the Knights while junior guard Corey Davis Jr. had another 15 point game. Expect Gray and Davis Jr. to try and pick on Landrum and the other SMU freshman.
Houston will need to move the ball and make SMU’s eight players in the line up chase it.
The biggest worry for the Cougars is fouls. The team has allowed 126 free-throw attempts over the last five games.
UH’s four main forwards have a combined 65 fouls and four foul-outs over the last five games. The team as a whole averages over 21 fouls a game, the 23rd worst out of 351 NCAA teams.
Sampson said that he thinks the team just needs to tighten up and work on the normal, little things to fix their problems.
SMU is a top 100 RPI team, but mostly because of earlier performances. Now they are simply not the same team that defeated three ranked squads earlier this season.
It is one of the most winnable SMU games for Houston in years, and they should be able to earn win 49.