AAC Tournament preview: UH goes for third consecutive title
The beauty of a conference tournament is that every team, regardless of its regular-season record, has a shot at the big prize — a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
With the stakes being so high, the target that Houston, the American Athletic Conference’s No. 1 seed and the country’s current top team in the AP poll, has played with all season grows even larger.
“Coach lets us know that whoever we play, they’re going to come out and play their hardest and try to punch their ticket (to the tournament) through us,” said guard Tramon Mark. “We’ve got to come out and play hard. (We) can’t let that happen.”
While UH doesn’t have to worry about making the NCAA Tournament, likely having one of the four No. 1 seeds already locked up after going 29-2 in the regular season, the Cougars can add one more chapter to their dominant stint in the AAC as they head out the door for the Big 12.
No team has ever won the AAC Tournament three times. UH, having won the last two conference tournament titles, has a chance to be the first over the weekend in Fort Worth.
Though things are amplified in the postseason, UH head coach Kelvin Sampson’s approach of focusing on what is right in front of him doesn’t change.
“If you don’t win, there is no second game,” Sampson said. “So, I don’t worry about three games in three days. I worry about one game in one day.”
One of the biggest challenges in a conference tournament is the teams know each other well, most having played each other twice during the regular season.
That makes winning a game in the conference tournament that much harder.
“It’s hard to beat a team twice,” said AAC Player of the Year Marcus Sasser. “It’s even harder to beat a team three times.”
On top of that, hoisting the AAC Tournament trophy one final time will require the Cougars to win three games in three days.
“Three games in three days is not easy,” said UH point guard Jamal Shead said. “(It takes) learning how to play on a heavy set of legs.”
Heading into what could potentially be a taxing three days for UH, Sampson’s No. 1 priority is to stay healthy for “the bigger picture” which is the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, the 67-year-old head coach still wants his team to be the one lifting up the trophy on Sunday.
“You don’t go into any game not trying to win,” Sampson said.
The journey starts Friday at noon, where UH, which has won 11 straight and 20 of its last 21 games, will play the winner of No. 8 seed South Florida and No. 9 seed East Carolina at Dickies Arena.
The Cougars’ goal remains the same as it has been all season.
“Just keep winning,” Shead said.