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Friday, June 2, 2023

Men's Basketball

UH basketball: Previewing the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament opener against Northern Kentucky

UH point guard Jamal Shead met with the media on Wednesday prior to the Cougars' NCAA Tournament opener against Northern Kentucky on Thursday night. | Anh Le/The Cougar

UH point guard Jamal Shead met with the media on Wednesday prior to the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament opener against Northern Kentucky on Thursday night. | Anh Le/The Cougar

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Houston’s road back home begins at 8:20 p.m. Thursday at Legacy Arena.

Horizon League Tournament champion Northern Kentucky (22-12) is the Cougars’ first step on a journey they hope ends at NRG Stadium on April 3.

About Northern Kentucky

After beating Cleveland State in Horizon League Tournament title game, Northern Kentucky locked up its third-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, excluding 2020 in which the Norse clinched an automatic bid before the tournament was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marques Warrick, a 6-foot-2-inch junior guard, leads the Norse in scoring, averaging 19.1 points per game. He is efficient from beyond the arc, shooting 39.1 percent from 3 in 220 attempts this season.

As a guard group, Northern Kentucky shoots well from deep. Sam Vinson, Trevon Faulkner, Xavier Rhodes and Trey Robinson, each who has played over 700 minutes for the Norse this season, all shoot above 33 percent from 3-point range.

“We’ve got really good guard play on the perimeter for our level,” said Northern Kentucky head coach Darrin Horn.

Chris Brandon, Northern Kentucky’s 6-foot-8-inch forward, has major ties to Houston as he is the nephew of Rockets assistant coach John Lucas and attended Bellaire High School. Brandon averages a team-leading 9.8 rebounds. He also leads the Norse in blocks with 24 on the season.

“We feel like athletically, he can compete with anybody that we’ve played against,” Horn said. “What he provides is a great, athletic presence.”

Like UH, Northern Kentucky’s identity starts on defense.

The Norse are tied for seventh nationally in steals per game and are top-30 in scoring defense, allowing just 63.6 points per game.

“It’s a matchup, switching, stripping, grabbing, turn you over (defense),” Sampson said about Northern Kentucky’s defense. “They force you to play in a way that you haven’t seen before. It doesn’t who plays against them, you’re going to have possessions where you look lost.”

History of No. 1 vs No. 16

Only once has a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 16 seed.

But that doesn’t change the way Houston has prepared for its NCAA Tournament because Sampson knows anything can happen during the month of ‘Madness.’ 

“Every game is hard,” Sampson said. “It’s hard to make the tournament. It’s hard to win a game in the tournament.”

The University of Maryland-Baltimore County made history five years ago to the day, shocking Virginia, the 2018 tournament’s top overall seed, 74-54.

Iconic CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, who graduated from UH in 1981, was on the call for that game.

Nantz will be the play-by-play announcer for the game between Houston and Northern Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Cougars, the betting favorites to win the national championship, are favored by double-digits against the Norse.

Even with all the odds in their favor, with No. 1 seeds being 147-1 against No. 16 seeds since the tournament expanded in 1985, UH won’t allow itself to look past its first-round matchup.

“Northern Kentucky is our first step, and it can be our last step. Knock on wood,” Shead said. “We don’t take that for granted”

Sasser’s status

UH All-American guard Marcus Sasser will be a game-time decision, per Sampson.

“If the doctors think he can play and if he wants to play and we’re not risking further energy, then he’ll play,” Sampson said. “If he is, he won’t. Simple as that.” 

The senior guard suffered a groin strain in the Cougars’ win over Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals on Saturday and sat out in Sunday’s championship game against Memphis for precautionary reasons.

Even if Sasser, who leads UH in scoring averaging 17.1 points per game, doesn’t play, Horn knows how dangerous the Cougars are because of their depth.

Sasser is fantastic without question,” Horn said. “But they’re much more than him. They’re No. 1 for a reason.”

UH advanced to the Elite Eight a year ago without Sasser, who missed most of the season with a foot injury.

“We’re Houston,” Sampson said. “Whether Marcus is here or not, we’re still Houston. You have a responsibility to play to our identity.”

How to watch

Tip-off is scheduled for  8:20 p.m.

The game will air on TNT. It can also be heard via radio on KPRC 950 AM.

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