As has been said many times this season, tonight’s game is the biggest for UH basketball in 35 years.
Except this one is uncharted territory.
The last time UH played in the Sweet 16 was in 1984, at the end of Phi Slama Jama. Now, Michael Young is 58! Reid Gettys and Hakeem are 56 and Rickie Winslow is 54. They’re older than the current players’ parents.
From the start, this needs to be said: the Cougars can win this game. No one nationally is picking them and Houston has become the afterthought, really. Check out any national publication today and all you’ll see are dozens of “Will PJ Washington play?” stories next to ones titled “How will Kentucky fair against UNC without him?” It’s annoying but I’m fine being disrespected right now.
How the Coogs Win
In order to advance, Houston needs to find ways to get open shots. I think this will be harder than in any game the Coogs have played.
But tonight will come down to efficiency. Kentucky does everything well that UH does except they do it with five-star players. Kentucky challenges with their length but their defensive aggressiveness and rebounding looks a lot like UH.
Here are my keys for the Coogs:
FT Disparity – An argument could be made that the three UH losses came at the FT line. In those 3 games, the Coogs shot 58% and were outscored by 28 from the line. If either of those things happen tonight, we lose.
UH doesn’t want this to become a free throw shooting contest late in the second half. Kentucky is 5th in free throws made and they will get to the line more often in a close game. They’ll get calls due to their length and, frankly, reputation.
If UH has 4-5 fouls heading to the under-12 timeout in the 2nd half, we’re in trouble.
Go deeper: Since the win in Tulsa on 1/27, UH has shot just 65% from the line. To give that a frame of reference, 65% for the season would rank 329th in D1. The Cougars must make free throws tonight.
Be Best – UH is #1 nationally in FG defense (36.6%) while Kentucky is 27th in FG shooting (47.8%). UH has to win that battle and force the Wildcats to take shots they normally wouldn’t.
UK only takes 1/3 of their shots at the basket but they’re 13th in the country in FG% at the rim (67.9%). UH has to keep them away from the basket and shooting jumpers (where UK shoots 39.1%) or three-pointers (35.9%).
UH is #1 in three-point defense, too, but that will probably be wasted on Kentucky. The Wildcats are in the bottom 10 in percentage of shots taken from 3. Kentucky will not run much but that works out very well for the Cougars – UH is #1 in the country at non-transition defense (40.6%).
Senior Leadership – It seems every time UH steps onto the big stage, coaching rumors follow. I’m confident that Corey Davis and Galen Robinson will have their guys focused on what they can control.
The Kelvin Sampson to Arkansas story has blown up since they team arrived in KC. How does this team handle it? Will we make a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes? If Kentucky goes on a run, do we respond?
I don’t blame Kelvin for taking care of himself. He’s earned a significant pay increase and if he wants to leave, I’m thankful for what he’s built. But UH isn’t the only program dealing with these rumors: Virginia Tech plays 20 minutes before us tonight and they’ve been hearing “Buzz to A&M” for two weeks.
Texas Tech’s Chris Beard is mentioned a lot for Arkansas and LSU but they managed to roll over Michigan last night. Point being, this isn’t just a UH thing. It’s a big-time college sports thing. And it sucks.
Tonight, if we lose but do it playing our game, I’ve got no issues. On paper, Kentucky is better. But if we’re blown out and look frazzled, then we can talk about the effect these rumors had.
I’m betting that our seniors have taken charge and will have this team ready. That’s what champions do.
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