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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Men's Basketball

Sweet Sixteen: Houston and Kentucky to face off in defensive bout

The Cougars got to celebrate the win together after the game on the court and then in the locker room with Super Soakers. | Ahmed Gul/The Cougar

The Cougars made history by advancing in March Madness after wins over the Buckeyes and the Panthers this weekend.

Houston will be making its first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 35 years and will face the traditional powerhouse, No. 2 seeded Kentucky from the Southeastern Conference.

High level of defense

Kentucky will be the third team Houston has faced in the top 30 defensive teams, with UCF and Cincinnati being the other two. The Cougars went a combined 3-2 against those opponents and will have its toughest test yet with the Wildcats.

Houston itself is No. 7 in the country and has allowed just over 60 points per game, while Kentucky has allowed about 65.

“I haven’t seen any weaknesses where we can exploit them,”said head coach Kelvin Sampson.

Kentucky kept Wofford senior Fletcher Magee to just eight points when his season average was more than 20, and he was 0-for-12 from three-point range.

While Houston has not normally relied on a single individual to score that much, senior Corey Davis Jr. put up 26 and 21 points in its first two NCAA Tournament games.

Kentucky may opt to focus on guarding Davis Jr. and force another guard to step up in his place.

Senior Galen Robinson Jr. and junior Armoni Brooks have both had 20 or more points in a game this season and could take over if left with space to drive or shoot threes.

Houston has had mixed success in shutting down opposing top shooters this season. UCF senior B.J. Taylor scored 21 and 11 points against Houston, Memphis senior Jeremiah Martin scored 16 and 23 points, Cincinnati junior Jarron Cumberland scored 27, 20 and 33 points and Ohio State sophomore Kaleb Wesson hit his average of 15.

The first two players had performances well below and well above their season average while Cumberland was above all three games.

If Houston can’t stop a player from dominating the game, it may not have an answer for them.


A player Houston will have to be ready for is SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year freshman Ashton Hagans, who Sampson praised in a Tuesday interview.

Hagans has been one of the best defensive guards in the country this year and is one of four players on the Wildcats’ roster expected to be drafted into the NBA in a few months.

Hagans is a force on defense and even tied the school’s record for steals in a game with eight against North Carolina, a No. 1 seed in the tournament, which was set by Wayne Turner in 1997 and Rajon Rondo in 2005.

SEC Freshman of the Year Keldon Johnson is another player expected to go high in the draft, and he can completely take over the team’s scoring.

A wildcard for Kentucky is sophomore PJ Washington, another player expected to go to the NBA after this season, who injured his foot against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament and has been out since. If he plays, that adds another big scoring threat to an already potent lineup.

Sampson said the Cougars would game plan for Washington and think that he will play on Friday.

“He’s a four, but they could play him anywhere,” Sampson said.

Kentucky’s starting guards are also a few inches taller and have longer wingspans than the Houston starters.

Houston is not unfamiliar with this situation, as it has happened more often than not during the season, but it may utilize its depth more to compensate.

Freshman Nate Hinton and redshirt sophomore DeJon Jarreau usually start on the bench but are 6’5″ and could be rotated in earlier to match up better against the taller Wildcats.

Even though Sampson called Kentucky the best team Houston played all year, the team’s pregame preparation will not change.

“It doesn’t matter who we play. Today’s practice won’t be any different than (the ones we had at the beginning of the season),” Sampson said. “When you win 33 games, it means that you’re preparing to win every game you play.”

The game could go a lot of different ways with all the different variables, but it should be close the whole way through. The Cougars have shown the ability to go toe-to-toe with anyone and will get another chance to prove it in Kansas City, Missouri.

Houston and Kentucky tip off at approximately 9 p.m. CT Friday, and the game will be broadcast on TBS.

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