Time to dance: Major storylines for UH during March Madness
It’s time for Houston to get its dancing shoes out of the closet, as the UH men’s basketball team is heading to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year and 23rd overall time in program history.
UH enters the Big Dance as a No. 5 seed in the South Region and will face No. 12 seed UAB, the Conference USA tournament champions, in the first round on Friday night in Pittsburgh.
Here are the major storylines for the Cougars going into the tournament:
The injury bug has hit UH hard all season, most notably with guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark both suffering season-ending injuries in December.
On top of that, guards Kyler Edwards and Jamal Shead have dealt with sprained ankles. Freshman guard Ramon Walker underwent surgery early in the season on his right hand to reattach a tendon and is currently dealing “the guy with the most injuries” per UH head coach Kelvin Sampson.
Forward Reggie Chaney has played one-handed nearly the entire season after suffering a left-hand injury. Forward and leader of the team Fabian White Jr. missed the majority of UH’s game against Tulane in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals due to back tightness.
“Our guys are like mummies getting ready for practice,” Sampson said. “They’ve got tape everywhere.”
The lack of depth, particularly among the guard group, will be something to watch throughout the tournament because UH simply does not have the bodies to make a deep run if one of the banged-up players listed above is unable to go on due to injury.
Foul trouble is also a concern as Sampson’s rotation consists of only eight guys, four guards, three forwards and a center.
Even with the odds stacked against them, the UH men’s basketball team has learned to play with limited bodies, finding ways to win all season.
Having have crossed off the first two goals on the checklist, winning the AAC regular-season title and conference tournament championship, UH hopes it can continue its success on the biggest stage by playing as a team.
“We’ve come a long way with this group,” Sampson said. “Where we are right now is a testament to their hard work, their ability to stay together and play for each other and pick each other up. This team really had to come together, probably more than any other team we’ve had. They had to lean on each other. We had to be a team. We couldn’t be a team of stars. We had to be a team of teammates. I don’t think you can have a great team unless you can be a great teammate.”
History of the 12-5 upset
Almost every March, a 12 seed busts millions of brackets across the country by upsetting a 5-seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kelvin Sampson knows the dangers 12 seeds have historically presented in March.
“Every year there’s a 12 and a 5 game where the 5-seed loses,” Sampson said. “It’s not because that’s an upset, it’s because that’s a tough matchup for that 5-seed.”
Since the expansion of the tournament field to 68 teams in 1985, No. 12 seeds have gone 51-93 against No. 5 seeds in the Big Dance, a 35.42 winning percentage. That’s nearly 14 percentage points better than No. 13 seeds’ all-time records against No. 4 seeds.
UH hopes it does not add its name to the list of No. 5 seeds that fall at the hands of a No. 12 seed in the tournament’s opening round but knows UAB will be a tough opponent to get past.
While the Cougars have played against some elite players all season, including Wooden Award hopeful Johnny Davis (Wisconsin) and projected NBA lottery draft pick Jalen Duren (Memphis), Sampson said his team is facing an entirely different animal in UAB guard Jordan Walker.
“They’ve got the most dynamic player (in Jordan Walker) that we’ve played against all year.”
Walker has been a matchup nightmare for opposing teams all season due to his ability to create any shot he wants for himself.
In 33 games this season, Walker averaged 20.4 points, shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range and 88.3 percent from the charity stripe.
“The hardest thing in basketball is guarding a great offensive player in space,” Sampson said. “That’s why the Walker kid from UAB is a monster matchup. He makes hard shots and he has the ultimate green light. So a miss doesn’t bother him. And he is a shot maker.”
Even being seven seeds higher than UAB, plenty of people across the country are picking the Cougars to fall to the Blazers on Friday night due to Walker’s ability to shoot the lights out of a gym.
“I feel like we’re the underdog regardless,” said point guard Jamal Shead. “A lot of people are picking UAB to beat us. We’re the fifth seed and they’re the 12th seed but we don’t really listen to that much. We like being the underdog. It just gives us more fire.”
Final Four repeat?
Before the season started, Sampson has been approached by countless UH fans who told him how excited they were for UH to return to the Final Four in 2022.
All Sampson could do is laugh because he knows how hard it is to win a game in the NCAA Tournament, let alone make the Final Four.
“I hear people talking about getting to a Final Four,” Sampson said. “This school hadn’t been to a Final Four since 1984 (before last season). Well if we go to one in the next 30 years it will be before we went to the last one. I don’t take that stuff for granted because I do this stuff for a living.”
The 2021 Final Four team and 2022 UH team are completely different.
Brison Gresham, DeJon Jarreau, Justin Gorham and Quentin Grimes, four of the players that started the majority of games for the Final Four Cougars last year, are all gone. The other starter from that group, Sasser, has been out since December and there is a zero percent chance he will return and play in the Big Dance, Sampson said.
Mark, who played a key role as a freshman in the NCAA Tournament for UH, has also been hurt since December and will not be on the court.
“They say we are a returning Final Four team. We are not a returning Final Four team,” Sampson said. “The (2021) Final Four team is not here, none of them. The only guy that we have that played meaningful minutes in the Final Four is Reggie (Chaney). Fabian (White) was still recovering.”
Mark and Sasser’s injuries made UH’s margin of error razor-thin, turning the Cougars into a team that could be a one-and-done in the tournament or a team that once again makes a deep run.
“This team could lose in the first round or this team could advance,” Sampson said. “We have that kind of team.”
The positive thing for the UH men’s basketball team is that they have experience playing under the bright lights.
Edwards has played in the NCAA Tournament every year of his college career, including going to the national championship game with Texas Tech during his freshman season in 2019.
White will play in his fourth NCAA Tournament. Josh Carlton also went dancing with UConn last season and Chaney played big minutes for the Cougars during last season’s tournament
While UH’s’ path to New Orleans, the site of the Final Four, will be full of challenges and seems unlikely to those on the outside, one thing is for certain — there is no quit is Sampson’s Cougars.
“We’re going to dance until the music stops, whenever that is,” Sampson said.