Gonzaga and Baylor have separated themselves as the two best teams in the country, but after that ranking is important. Due to Covid-19, the selection committee will be relying on the S-curve list much more heavily when bracketing the tournament. As a result, the question of who the third-best team in the country has never been so important.
There are quite a few teams that could fill that role, Iowa, Villanova, and even Kansas just to name a few. There is one team that hasn’t been mentioned but has the resume to be and the Houston Cougars are deserving.
Since the 2017-18 season, Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars have gone an astonishing 89-21, including 15-1 entering Wednesday’s game against East Carolina. In that time Houston went from the second round to the sweet sixteen and has flown under the radar with a better team this season. Tabbed as the clear winner of the American Athletic Conference in the preseason with nine of 11 first-place votes, they haven’t disappointed.
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It hasn’t been without adversity though, as the roster has had some unexpected changes. Three of their top four scorers from last season are gone. Nate Hinton left, Caleb Mills surprisingly transferred after four games and senior forward Fabian White, Jr. suffered a torn ACL.
This season’s squad
Despite the losses, Quentin Grimes has stepped into a leadership role and sophomore Marcus Sasser has enjoyed the spotlight. Grimes is the team’s leading scorer at 16.8 to go along with 6.7 rebounds and Sasser has nearly doubled his production with 15.6 per game. Senior forward Justin Gorham has also excelled in a larger role, grabbing 10.2 boards to go with 7.8 points.
However, the biggest reason for Houston’s success is once again their crippling defense. While the Cougar offense is averaging 74 points per game, their defense got them here and will carry them. Entering Wednesday’s game, they surrender a nation’s lowest 56 points per game. In fact, Houston’s opponents have only scored over 60 points twice, with one being their 65-64 loss to Tulsa.
Defense doesn’t slump
For the Cougars, it’s not just about the points, their opponents have difficulty finding points all over the floor. Houston has forced over 15 turnovers per game this season, and when opponents do shoot, they likely miss. Through January, the 36.2% of their opponents have shot from the floor is tops in the country, and the 42.6% on two-point shots is 9th.
If teams try to beat Houston from the perimeter or the free-throw line, good luck. Houston’s foes have made less than 25% of their three-point shots and when they get to the line, they shoot just 66%.
Looking at Houston’s resume, they are 4th in the NET rankings, behind the aforementioned Gonzaga, Baylor, and Michigan. The metrics are consistently high on Houston, with KenPom, BPI, SOR, and Sagarin all putting them in the top five. Looking at these metrics, Michigan is their biggest competition for the No. 3 spot.
The problem for Houston is the schedule; they have a 6-1 record over the first two quadrants, but few chances remain. Compare that to Michigan who has four top-20 teams left on their schedule. If Michigan were to trip up a couple of times before Selection Sunday, a one-loss Houston team could be the tournament’s overall No. 3 seed.