Marcus Sasser gets hurt. Another guard gets hurt. It almost seemed like the top-seeded Cougars were reliving Groundhog Day again.
During a first-round scare against Northern Kentucky, Sasser went down with the same groin injury he went down with last Saturday in Fort Worth. Around the same time, Jamal Shead hyperextended his knee but continued playing on it.
Luckily for UH, this pair of injuries are much less severe than the season-enders to Tramon Mark and Sasser 15 months ago. But with its top two offensive initiators hurt, Houston’s offense suffered mightily, as one would expect.
With its best shooter watching from the sideline, UH struggled from beyond the arc. Sasser went 1-3 from three in his short stint on the court, but without him over the last two games, the Cougars have shot a hideous 23.7% from downtown. It was reminiscent of the Cougars’ loss to Alabama in December, when a visually impaired Sasser could not find his rhythm, leaving the offense to stagnate and shoot a similar 23% on 13 three-point attempts.
In addition to the shooting woes, Kelvin Sampson pointed out how Sasser’s absence affected Jamal Shead’s ability to run the offense.
“One of the beautiful things about our team is how Jamal and Marcus play off each other,” Sampson said. “They have such a great symmetry and chemistry about them.”
On a bad knee and without his running mate in the backcourt, Shead was left on his own to navigate a sophisticated Norse defense that Sampson said was “somewhere in the middle” of a zone and man-to-man. It was an arduous task, and the offense was significantly hobbled. UH committed a surprising 17 turnovers, six of which came from the point guard himself. Three of the turnovers came on shot-clock violations.
Houston’s saving grace came in the form of freshman Emanuel Sharp. His ten second-half points included back-to-back catch-and-shoot threes that pushed a three-shot lead to nine. Those triples and a shot-clock-beating jumper three minutes later injected energy into a team teetering on the brink, allowing them to close it out. But while Sharp was hitting big shots, J’Wan Roberts was doing the dirty work down low.
Through all the offensive instability and health concerns, Roberts has been the stabilizing force for the UH. With a second straight double-double while also anchoring the defense, Sampson noted that Roberts was the only player he thought played “hard-nosed Cougars basketball” in Thursday night’s win.
Roberts has grabbed 32 rebounds in the last two games, with no other Cougar coming close. He has more offensive rebounds (15) in that span than the next closest UH player has total boards (14).
Friday afternoon, Shead and Sasser said they would play in the Auburn game on Saturday. But even with them in the lineup, UH will lean heavily on the “culture plays” from J’Wan Roberts and Reggie Chaney and sustained contributions from freshmen Jarace Walker, Terrance Arceneaux, and Emanuel Sharp.