Men's Basketball Sports

March Madness Q&A: Previewing Houston’s upcoming tournament run

Kelvin Sampson enters his sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament with the Cougars. | Anh Le/The Cougar

The moment fans have all been waiting for since the season started in November is here: the NCAA Tournament. After ripping through their first Big 12 season with an impressive 30-4 record and regular conference title, the 1-seed Houston Cougars have a chance to cap off an already historic season with a trip to the promised land.

Can UH and head coach Kelvin Sampson break through for their first NCAA title? Or will the injured Cougars run out of steam? We at The Cougar answered a few of your questions before the madness begins.

Is J’Wan Roberts O.K.? Why did UH try so hard in the Big 12 tourney as opposed to resting up and staying healthy? Was the potential No. 1 seed that big? (Question from /u/Brewpendous on Reddit)

Starns Leland, Sports Editor: J’Wan Roberts is fine-ish. He’s been dealing with a nagging knee injury since December and has toughed out twisted ankles and stitches in his right hand to be the Cougars’ heart and soul all season. The shin contusion he suffered in UH’s Big 12 Semifinal game against Texas Tech is just another addition to the many wounds the redshirt senior forward has and will continue to play with all season.

Head coach Kelvin Sampson has repeated the phrase: “If they’re keeping score, we’re going to try to win,” a lot this season. I think that’s the simple explanation as to why the team didn’t let off the gas in Big 12 Tournament, despite having a 1-seed pretty much locked up. This program has been built on giving 100% effort at all times since the moment Sampson stepped on campus in 2014. Though there may be a minimal benefit to having a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, the reason UH still went so hard last week is that anything less is simply not in the team’s DNA.

Riley Moquin, Assistant Sports Editor: J’Wan Roberts is not okay, but he will be playing in the tournament barring anything unforeseen. He is beaten up. He has a knee that is bothering him and stitches in his hand. With injuries to Terrance Arceneaux and Joseph Tugler knocking out two of Roberts’ reinforcements, though, he has not had the luxury of rest.

Roberts’ health is not really a consequence of playing in the Big 12 tournament. It obviously did not help but he was clearly already beaten up beforehand. As for why Houston did not rest up during the tournament, the answer is simple: It’s a tournament with a trophy at the end. Head coach Kelvin Sampson addressed this on Sunday, calling it a “disrespect” to Houston’s competitors in the tourney to rest its players. As Starns said, it is a culture thing. If there’s a win to be won or a trophy to hold, Kelvin Sampson is going to have his team competing.

What teams should UH be on the lookout for in the tournament? (Question by @thunker_424 on Instagram)

Starns: Houston’s draw in the South Region of this tournament is really interesting. Along with UH, the 2-4 seeds between Duke, Marquette and Kentucky are all legit national contenders and getting through two of them to get to the Final Four could be an absolute grind.

Aside from that, there are some scary teams on UH’s side of the bracket too. Eight-seed Nebraska can shoot the lights out at times while Wisconsin and Kentucky would put Houston’s nation-best defense to the test. Meanwhile, potential rematches against 9-seed Texas A&M and 6-seed Texas Tech could be something to watch out for as facing a team for the second or third time in the tournament can be somewhat unpredictable.

Riley: The South Region is a really cool one to be competing against. As early as the Round of 32, assuming Houston wins, the team will be playing either Nebraska or Texas A&M. Both are great teams, and Houston has seen A&M firsthand. Aggies guard Wade Taylor IV shot the lights out against the Cougars and nearly pulled A&M to a comeback win through sheer willpower. 

Further along, potential matchups with Duke and Wisconsin are interesting as well as an NC State team that could be a real sleeper if it keeps playing the way it did in the AAC Tournament. En route to winning the AAC bracket, NC State grabbed wins over Duke and UNC. Of course, in order to play Houston the Wolfpack will have to take down Texas Tech, another potential rematch for the Cougars.

Who do you think will be the most important in UH’s success late into the tournament? Who do you anticipate having a breakout performance in this March Madness? (Question from @grande_ernie on Instagram)

Starns: It’s a boring answer, but in March, you lean on your best players. For Houston, there is no doubt that Jamal Shead will need to carry an even larger burden as the season goes on. He’s the Big 12 Player of the Year, the likely Naismith Defensive Player of the Year winner and has a chance at the Bob Cousy for college’s best point guard. Most importantly, he’s the Cougars’ unquestioned leader and the on-court extension of Kelvin Sampson. This team will ultimately go as far as he takes it.

Damian Dunn has struggled to find his footing in Houston since transferring from Temple where he was a go-to scorer. Now as a bench player, his minutes and his play have been wildly up and down all year. However, Sampson has taken it upon himself to get Dunn on the right track for March, and he’s put together some solid minutes recently, including big first halves in the first two rounds of the Big 12 Tourney. In a close battle in the second weekend, Dunn may be the one needed to save UH’s season.

Riley: The easy answer is the Big 12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year, Jamal Shead. He is one of the country’s best point guards and will need to be at the top of his game. However, with injuries in mind, Houston needs the depth options it still has available to step up. Damian Dunn and Mylik Wilson are the main pieces to this puzzle and both will need to provide specific duties to the team. Dunn needs to provide an offensive spark off the bench. Wilson on the other hand needs to be a locked in on defense and, perhaps most importantly, needs to be a rebounder.

Cedric Lath was not supposed to be a rotational player this year. With injuries to most of UH’s other big men, Lath is suddenly playing substantial minutes in March. It is a bit much to expect him to fill the shoes of Arceneaux or even Tugler at this point, but alongside Wilson it will be crucial that Lath at the very least avoids foul trouble and provides some size off the bench.

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