Gonzaga, Baylor, Kansas, Iowa, and Villanova are some of the most talked-about favorites to make the Final Four in 2020-21, but they certainly aren’t the only ones who are capable of making a run in Indianapolis. In fact, there is a team that is a Final Four contender that has gone 83-20 over the last three full seasons and would be looking for a fourth straight trip to the Big Dance if last season hadn’t ended early: Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars.
To have success in March, there are certain characteristics that teams have in common. Three of the bigger traits among these teams are veteran leadership, solid backcourt play, and good defense; and, ever since Sampson arrived in Houston in 2014, and especially during the team’s current run, his teams have exhibited really good guard play. The Cougars have been one of the best defensive teams in the country.
From 2018-2020, Houston has allowed just 62.6 points per game, has ranked in the top-eight in the country in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 38% shooting from the field, and 29% from beyond the three-point line. Over the first eight games of this season, the Cougars’ defense is just as stingy, surrendering a paltry 55.8 points per game with their opponents shooting just 37%, and are making under 24% of their attempts from beyond the three-point line on the year. When it comes to the analytics, which is growing in popularity, they currently rank 13th in defensive efficiency, allowing just 89.6 points for 100 possessions, a statistic they ranked 21st or higher over the three previous seasons.
Offensively, Houston has been guard-oriented since Sampson’s arrival to the point that since the 2017-18 season, 14 of the Cougars’ top 15 scorers have been guards. Coming off a 23-win season and with five of their top six scorers returning, things were looking good for another successful season for the Cougars. That optimism took a bit of a hit in the offseason when the team’s best forward and one of its senior leaders, Fabian White Jr., tore his ACL and would miss the season. However, eight games into the season, the Cougars are showing no ill effects of the loss as they sit at 7-1, are currently ranked 5th in the country, and were 0.1 seconds away from an 8-0 record after a 65-64 loss on the road at Tulsa.
The veteran leaders for the Cougars are senior forward Justin Gorham and fellow senior DeJon Jarreau, but it is fellow backcourt mate Quentin Grimes whose play has spearheaded Houston’s hot start. The 6’5 junior, who transferred from Kansas after one season, leads the team in scoring with 18.5 points and is second on the team in both rebounds and assists while also having the highest usage rate on the team at 26.5%.
The three upperclassmen provide a solid role model for the rest of the roster, including the three underclassmen guards that have burst onto the scene for Houston over the past couple of seasons. Sophomore Marcus Sasser is 2nd on the team in scoring and is the team’s best three-point shooter, shooting 37%, and if you want to guard him, make sure you’re out by the three-point line because 51 of his 75 shot attempts on the season have been from deep. Fellow sophomore Caleb Mills, who has only played in four games this season, has netted double figures in three of those four.
As the season moves along, don’t be surprised if the North Carolina native cracks the starting lineup after starting seven games last season. Freshman Tramon Mark had quite the collegiate debut with 22 points and eight rebounds in the win over Lamar, and the 6’5 guard has the athleticism to create a dynamic duo with Grimes over the next two seasons.
One more thing that makes Houston extremely out is the fact that they play at one of the slowest paces in the country, which means opponents have to be extremely efficient on the offensive end because possessions are at a premium when you play Houston. The Cougars may not be the names we usually hear in conjunction with a final four run, but they have all the ingredients, and if baked at the right temperature, they could be the surprise team jumping out of the cake in Indianapolis.