Men’s basketball’s toughest games remain on the schedule
Coming into conference play, the men’s basketball team was off to a monumental 13-0 start.
No. 21/17 Houston roared through its demanding non-conference schedule with victories over three major-conference teams: Oregon, Oklahoma State and LSU. The team also had resume-boosting victories over BYU, St. Louis and Utah State.
But the undefeated streak ended when UH lost at Temple after a game-tying bucket from senior Corey Davis Jr. was called off due to an offensive foul.
The American Athletic Conference is tallied as the No. 6 most difficult conference, which actually tops one of the major six conferences, the PAC-12.
Of the 14 conference games remaining for UH, the Cougars are only underdogs in two, as predicted by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, at UCF Feb. 7 and at Cincinnati March 10.
While these two games are definitely the toughest games for UH, a trip to Dallas against SMU on Wednesday could also be a serious test.
The Mustangs have found their rhythm with a respectable 11-5 record and are tied with UH and three other schools at third in conference.
SMU has two preseason all-conference players, second-team junior Jahmal McMurray and first-team senior Jarrey Foster, so Houston’s great defense will have its hands full.
McMurray splashed onto the national scene early in the season with a stellar 34-point performance against Western Carolina, while Foster has slowly established himself as a key figure after missing the first six games of the season.
McMurray leads the Mustangs in points per game and is a lights-out shooter with 45.1 percent accuracy. Junior Jimmy Whitt Jr. stepped in while Foster struggled, averaging 12.8 points per game and leading the Mustangs in assists per game.
As a team, SMU is shooting 45.1 percent from the field, but Houston is top 10 in the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage, top 20 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency and are top 10 in points allowed per game.
It will be a challenge for the Mustangs to put up such numbers against the Cougars.
The Knights were the preseason favorite to win the AAC in the conference coaches’ predictions, and the squad is meeting those expectations thus far.
UCF has dropped just two games by a combined three points, and the talking point of the Knights has been its towering 7’6″ center, senior Tacko Fall.
Guarding Fall is no easy task. The senior is averaging 10.5 points per game on a mind-boggling 80 percent shooting accuracy.
With the tallest player for UH with significant minutes being senior Breaon Brady at 6’8″ tall, Houston will have their hands full. Oregon’s 7’3″ freshman Bol Bol scored 23 points against Houston in the team’s meeting earlier this season.
Even more surprising may be that Fall is only UCF’s third leading scorer, with guards B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins leading the way for the Knights. Taylor, the preseason conference player of the year, has averaged 17.3 points per game while Dawkins has scored 15.9 with a red-hot 47.2 percent field goal.
While UCF does score well, what makes this game so intriguing is each squad’s defense.
The Knights are only allowing 63 points a game and have blocked 16.2 percent of opponents’ shots at the rim. This statistic might not be too important though, because only 25.5 percent of Houston’s shots are at the rim.
The Cougars love to shoot the three, as 44.5 percent of their shots have come from deep, and have drained 33.3 percent. On the other hand, UCF has allowed its opponents to shoot 32.6 percent from three-point range.
The best bet for Houston to grab another resume-boosting win is to stick with what gave it its 15-game winning streak to open the season: shoot the ball from behind the arc.
Houston’s journey to Cincinnati is its toughest remaining game. Last season, the squads met three times with each winning its home game and the Bearcats winning the third in the AAC Tournament Championship game by one point.
The teams mirror each other almost identically on paper.
In 2019, Houston has averaged 75.3 points a game. Cincinnati has averaged 75.1. Houston has allowed opponents to score 60.6 a game, and Cincinnati has allowed 61.1. Houston has shot 43.6 percent from the field. Cincinnati has shot 46.1 percent. Houston has shot 33.4 percent from three, and Cincinnati has shot 34.4 percent.
This will be a game of splitting hairs.
Preseason first-team all-conference junior guard Jarron Cumberland has averaged 18.2 points per game and already has eight 20-point games. The biggest hiccup in Cumberland’s play, however, is his frequency to turn the ball over, as he averages 2.4 turnovers per game.
This could be one of Houston’s strongest counters to such an evenly matched opponent, as the Cougars are averaging 7.4 steals per game.
Along with the promising factors in swiping the ball, three-point shots will be huge if Houston will leave Cincinnati with a victory.
The Bearcats are tied at No. 190 for three-point percentage allowed, which is of course the Cougars’ strong suit. In Cincinnati’s three losses this season, it has allowed its opponents to shoot a blistering 44.4 percent from deep.
The Cougars certainly have the pieces and play type to defeat the Bearcats in Cincinnati, and the key to executing will be sticking to their rugged defense and lights-out three-point shooting.
If Houston can do so in the final game of the season, then it would bode well for any potential playoff matchup and could help the team achieve its first AAC regular season championship.