UH basketball: Previewing the Cougars NCAA Tournament clash with Auburn
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Looking to advance to its fourth consecutive Sweet 16, Houston will take on Auburn at 6:10 p.m. Saturday night at Legacy Arena.
Entering the NCAA Tournament as the Midwest Region’s No. 9 seed, Auburn (21-12) knocked off No. 8 seed Iowa 83-76 on Thursday to advance to the round of 32.
Johni Broome, a 6-foot-8-inch sophomore, leads the Tigers in scoring, averaging 14.2 points, and rebounding, pulling down 8.5 boards per game.
The Auburn forward is also one of the top shot blockers in college basketball, swatting away 2.4 shots per game.
“He is very versatile,” said UH head coach Kelvin Sampson when asked about Broome. “(He has a) great instinct to block shots.”
Along with Broome, guards Wendell Green Jr. and Allen Flanigan as well a forward Jaylin Williams each average double figures scoring.
“Their starting five is very athletic, great size,” Sampson said.
The Tigers’ bench is spearheaded by junior guard K.D. Johnson, who averages 8.9 points per game.
“K.D. Johnson’s energy and scoring ability off the bench, what a punch that is for us,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl.
Unlike UH’s tight rotation, Pearl believes in using the depth of his roster as much as possible.
In Auburn’s first-round victory over Iowa, 11 Tigers saw action. In comparison, only eight Cougars played for UH in its NCAA Tournament opener against Northern Kentucky.
“I’ve always believed in not shortening your bench come tournament time,” Pearl said. “I want my guys fresh and furious at the end to be able to win the game.”
Keys for Houston
Attack early offensively and amp up the pressure defensively
When asked about the challenges in playing UH, Pearl brought two things up — the quickness of the Cougars’ guards and the defensive pressure they apply.
“We’re all going to have a hard time keeping Houston’s guards in front of us,” Pearl said. “And we’re all going to have a hard time dealing with Houston’s pressure. They get up into you, and they make everything you do very very difficult.”
Pearl called Jamal Shead the “best defensive guard in college basketball,” applauding the tone the UH point guard sets for the Cougars defensively.
Shead and Marcus Sasser both said they will play against Auburn despite being dinged up. How effective Shead and Sasser will be remains a major question.
It also means that Tramon Mark, a 6-foot-5-inch guard out of Dickinson, might have to carry more of the load offensively for UH.
While Mark averages just 9.6 points per game, the redshirt sophomore has scored in double figures in 18 games this season, including two 20-plus point games.
“At the end of the day, I’m not putting any more pressure on myself,” Mark said. “But if I have to play a bigger role then I will.”
Calming the nerves
When asked about the Cougars’ struggles against Northern Kentucky on Thursday, Shead said he thought UH’s nerves played a big factor.
“I think we were just nervous (Thursday) and I think our jitters got the best of us,” Shead said.
With their first NCAA Tournament game under their belt, Shead is confident that a different version of the Cougars compared to the one on Thursday night will show up against Auburn.
“I think we’ll come back a lot stronger (Saturday),” Shead said.
Playing just over 100 miles from Auburn’s campus, Saturday night is essentially a road game for UH.
Alabama, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, also plays at Legacy Arena on Saturday night approximately 26 minutes after the conclusion of UH and Auburn.
With plenty of fans wearing crimson and white expected to be building for the matchup between the Cougars and Tigers, both Pearl and Sampson made their best pitch to Alabama fans to root for their team.
Pearl encouraged Alabama fans to stay loyal to the state and the SEC and root for Auburn.
“My hope is that our fans root for Alabama in the SEC and that Alabama’s fans root for Auburn in the SEC,” Pearl said.
Sampson took the opposite approach, saying that Alabama’s strong dislike for Auburn is reason enough for Crimson Tide fans to cheer for UH.
“Roll Tide,” Sampson said in his best southern accent. “I don’t think I have to go much further than that.”
How to watch
Tip-off is scheduled for 6:10 p.m.
The game will air on TBS and can also be heard via radio on KPRC 950 AM.