The Arizona Wildcats are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017, and as the No. 1 seed in the South Region they’re still the team to beat.
Yet their next opponent in the NCAA Tournament, the fifth-seeded Houston Cougars, are only a 2-point underdog for Thursday night’s game in San Antonio, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Houston (31-5) has easily handled its first two tourney foes, including a 68-53 win over Illinois in the second round.
To better understand the Coogs, we reached out to Dustin and Sam of The Scott and Holman Pawdcast for some insight. Here are their spirited answers to our apathetic questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: Houston is one of two teams in the country—Gonzaga is the other—that ranks in the Top 10 in KenPom in offensive and defensive efficiency. Which side is better for the Cougars, and which is more likely to have an off performance?
Dustin: “That’s a tough question, as the Coogs have certainly been excellent on both ends of the court this year, as the numbers would indicate. But I would say I have slightly more confidence in Houston’s defense, if for no other reason than that defense has been Kelvin Sampson’s calling card since he got to Houston. UH has finished in the top six nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage for five years in a row now. And as an added bonus, this has been Sampson’s best Houston team at turning opponents over. The Cougars run an 8-man rotation, and while the three bench players aren’t likely to contribute much offensively, this team loves playing defense 1 through 8. They double the post aggressively, they switch and recover remarkably well, and they create a lot of deflections to lead to those turnovers. Houston facing one of the handful of best offensive teams in the country in Arizona is one of the prime matchups of the tournament thus far, in my opinion.”
The Cougars are in their third consecutive Sweet 16, but this one might be the most improbable due to the season-ending injuries to guards Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser, both of whom played in the Final Four last year. How has their absence changed what Houston does, and how has it been able to be so successful without them?
Sam: “I think the absence of two key guys like Sasser and Mark has changed what the Cougars have done in a couple of key ways.
“The most obvious one is that, down two key guards, the scoring shifted a bit more toward the frontcourt and veteran big men Fabian White Jr. and Josh Carlton. I will say, though, that those those guys having breakout seasons wasn’t solely an outcome based on other players getting injured. Coming into this season my co-host Dustin and I were pretty confident this year’s group would be Kelvin Sampson’s best group of big men. White, after gradual improvement in his first three years, missed most of last season recovering from an ACL tear and showed flashes of brilliance in a late-season return. He is never going to be the biggest guy playing the 4, but he’s an unbelievably gifted offensive rebounder and someone with legit 3-point range. Carlton never seemed to fit what Dan Hurley wanted to do at UConn, and while we thought he’d be a much better fit with what Sampson does ... I don’t think we would’ve predicted he’d be a 1st team All-Conference selection. Those guys definitely took on more of the offense with the roster as presently constructed, but I don’t think either guy would’ve been an afterthought if the Coogs stayed 100 percent healthy.
“But no less important is how those two guys’ injuries changed the dynamic at the point guard position. Even though he’d been largely a classic 2 guard his first two college seasons, Sampson was having Marcus Sasser largely run the point and also be the Coogs’ No. 1 scoring option and early returns were quite good in nonconference play. With Sasser and another point guard option in Tramon Mark gone, Jamal Shead becomes indispensable. Shead was already playing a fair amount and now by necessity was thrust into a role where he was on the court nearly every available minute. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s a tough on-ball defender and who seems to relish tougher assignments. Allowing Shead to get these reps and show an ability to be an all-conference guy in his first season of meaningful playing time is pretty exciting for the Coogs’ long-term prospects.”
Like almost every team nowadays, transfers have played an important role in Houston’s success. What have Josh Carlton, Taze Moore and Kyler Edwards brought to the mix?
Dustin: “It would be hard to overstate their influence, as all three guys came as one-year rentals, but all three ended up playing huge roles and won over the fans quickly. Josh Carlton gives Houston a scoring option at the 5 that they haven’t had under Sampson at any point prior. And as a nice bonus, he’s an elite offensive rebounder and shot blocker. The way he’s transformed his body and his game from a disappointing final season at UConn has been extremely impressive. Taze Moore is Houston’s playmaking-est defensive guard and best overall athlete, someone who came from a smaller school in Cal State-Bakersfield, and was expected to be maybe the second guard option off the bench, but in the wake of the injuries to Mark and Sasser, he has really blossomed into a go-to scoring option, as well. He’s continually gained confidence all season in his ability to get to the bucket and finish, and he seems to hit a big shot whenever Houston needs one. Kyler Edwards is Houston’s leading scorer, and he’s someone with a big boom-or-bust factor offensively. He can completely take games over when he’s feeling it, but he’s not immune to a 3-for-12 or similar. However, he’s such a good rebounding guard, he’s a good defender, he takes care of the ball—Kelvin Sampson likes to say he does everything well. So that makes the shooting slumps a little easier to handle.”
How do you expect Houston to deal with Arizona’s size in the frontcourt and length on the wings?
Sam: “I mean, we’re talking about a Wildcat team that’s the 2nd-tallest in the country per KenPom, this is not an easy hoops riddle to solve. I’ll start by flattering the Wildcat fans reading this, specifically by saying its less the Wildcats’ raw height that concerns me but the combination of that height and obvious skill. Christian Koloko doesn’t concern me because he’s listed at 7-foot-1, he concerns me because he’s a high-level offensive rebounder and shot blocker with an extremely efficient offensive game. And unlike our most recent opponent. Illinois, this Wildcat team isn’t just built around one good big man, Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo (to differing degrees, obviously) offer a lot as well. I expect Josh Carlton will be excited, after facing Kofi Cockburn last week, to get a fair amount of Koloko. You’ll see a fair amount of J’Wan Roberts and Reggie Chaney spelling Carlton, because even if things are going well for the Coogs there’s a high probability of Sampson needing to manage big man foul trouble on Thursday.
“But even with Arizona’s great frontcourt, I think the length on the wings might concern me more. The only team that really gave the Coogs fits this year was Memphis, a team that not coincidentally has a lot of length on the wings and that team in some surface level ways is similar to Arizona (a key difference being Tommy Lloyd didn’t spent half of 2021-22 trying to appease Emoni Bates’ dad). I certainly think Arizona could cause some mismatches for a Cougar team that maybe doesn’t have the length in the backcourt of last year’s group.”
Kelvin Sampson has had a hell of a coaching career, not the least of which was being able to win at Washington State—though he was 0-15 against Arizona. He (and Eduardo Najera) knocked off the Wildcats in a 4/13 game in 1999 while at Oklahoma, and also beat them on the way to the 2002 Final Four. He’s won everywhere, but Houston might be his best performance. How has he managed to be so successful that, for nearly 30 years, had been an afterthought?
Dustin: “In terms of the roster construction aspect, Sampson and his staff—including primary recruiter and head-coach-in-waiting Kellen Sampson—did a great job right away of identifying early, and eventually signing some 3-star recruits and selling them on a vision for the program, with Sampson’s recent NBA history certainly helping. And then it seems like every year the cycle repeats: Houston runs a 9-man rotation, graduates four starters, but returns the other five guys and brings in a slightly higher level of talent than the previous recruiting class, and you look up and at the end of the year the Cougars are slightly better than they were the year before. And what’s exciting is that that process doesn’t appear to have stopped yet. If not for the injuries, I think this would’ve ended up being an even better overall team than last year’s Final Four squad. And the Cougars have, by far, their best recruiting class yet coming in for next season, headlined by a top-10 recruit in Jarace Walker.
“In terms of the on-the-court aspect, in short, Sampson has been successful with defense and rebounding. His teams have had different offensive identities from year to year. Sometimes they feed off of one dominant scorer like Rob Gray or Quentin Grimes, sometimes it’s a more balanced attack, and this year we’ve seen the frontcourt get more involved than it ever has. But the expectation that you play your butt off on defense or you don’t play has always been there. Sampson has always devoted a significant portion of practice time to playing with a lid on the rim to force a rebound opportunity on every shot, and made sure that every player understands the importance of rebounding. Kelvin Sampson has been so successful at Houston because he’s so good at getting his teams to own all the aspects of the game other than making shots, that this team is hard to beat even when the shots aren’t falling, and nearly impossible to hang with when they are.
“And it’s also important to point out that the school administration has done a great job of supporting him. Since Sampson arrived, UH has unveiled the brand-new Fertitta Center, with adjacent state-of-the-art training facility.”
It’s been 13 years since Arizona and Houston played, with the Wildcats winning in overtime after being down 10 with 52 seconds left in regulation. The game was most notable for Cougars guard Aubrey Coleman stepping on Chase Budinger’s face and getting ejected. Who is the most likely UA player for Houston to step on in this game, and who on the Cougars is most likely to do that to Kerr Kriisa?
Sam: I watched the game you’re referencing with Dustin and half a dozen or so other friends because it was one of the 3-4 games that year that were on a TV channel that humans could actually watch. Really, a hearty endorsement there for the Conference USA experience. Anyway, while watching us quickly piss away a large lead I may or may not have knocked over a preposterously large number of drinks while angrily pounding the table. Certainly not my finest hour as a fan, and that specific game isn’t a personal favorite as you could imagine.
“I’ll preface my answer by saying that other than a few techs in some of the more heated conference games, that this isn’t a team I remotely expect to have any kind of scuffling or hijinks with the Wildcats. But my answer is sharpshooter and Cougar walk-on extraordinaire Ryan Elvin, because the scariest guys are the unassuming ones you’d never suspect to be capable of such a thing ... though to be clear, I don’t expect Ryan to do anything untoward to any Wildcat player on Thursday night.”
Prediction time. Does Houston keep proving that analytics matter more than polls and tournament seeds, advancing to a second straight Elite Eight, or does Arizona keep its run going and move on? Give us a score prediction.
Dustin: “I did pick Houston to go out to Arizona in the Sweet 16 before the tournament. And given the incredible run this team has been on this year, and what they’ve accomplished after losing maybe their two best players, it would feel almost greedy to expect them to keep it going. I do expect that this one will come down the wire, but pressed for a score prediction, I’ll say Arizona 76-71.”