A disappointing regular season comes to a close this afternoon as UConn visits Houston at 4 p.m.
The Huskies (14-16, 7-10 American Athletic Conference) have won only three of their last seven games, capping a season marked by unexpected losses, both in close games and in blowouts. They’ll be fighting for either the seventh or the eighth seed in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, which begins on March 8, and will meet either Tulane or Southern Methodist in the first round.
Houston (23-6, 13-4 AAC), meanwhile, has had as good of a season as anyone could have expected. ESPN’s Bubble Watch feature considers the Cougars a lock for the NCAA Tournament, which would be their first berth since 2010, and only their second bid in the last 26 seasons. This is also the first time Houston has been ranked in the AP Poll in 12 years. Suffice to say, it’s been an uncharacteristically good season for the Cougars.
Kelvin Sampson appears to have found his groove in his fourth year at Houston, leading his team to its third-straight 20-win season. This is the year everything has come together for the Cougars, who have displayed a powerful offense and stingy defense. They don’t have many good wins, but they’ve beaten just about everyone in front of them, and boast home victories over Wichita State, Cincinnati and Arkansas, beating the Razorbacks by 26 points.
The Houston offense starts with Rob Gray, the best ballhandler and top scorer, but Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks are dangerous sharpshooters that help open up opportunities for their teammates. Devin Davis is an undersized big man with great rebounding skills, and he averages double figures thanks to good positioning in the post and his ability on the offensive glass. Sampson’s team thrives in small lineups, as Wes VanBeck comes off the bench as another 3-point specialist, and it’s not unusual to see Houston’s tallest player on the floor rise to only 6-foot-7.
While that would hurt many teams defensively, it only seems to help Houston, as the Cougars are able to score much easier on offense, and don’t lose any productivity on the other end. Galen Robinson Jr. is only 6-feet, but is still their best perimeter defender (remind you of anyone?), Devin Davis plays above his size with tough defense and Fabian White Jr. is a dedicated shot-blocker off the bench (as is Chris Harris, when he gets in games).
If there’s any real gap to exploit in the Houston lineup, it’s the one-dimensional scoring, as it’s pretty obvious what each player will try to do with the ball in his hands. The 3-point specialists shoot threes, the big men don’t shoot from outside, and Gray will either pull up off the dribble or drive to the hoop. As good as the Cougars are, there’s a reason they lost to the likes of LSU and Drexel.
That means UConn will have to focus on defense in order to get what would be only the Huskies’ second win at Houston as a member of the AAC. Houston’s 3-point shooters are too good for UConn to have any defensive lapses, and that means communication will be key. Houston’s roster construction thankfully allows UConn to go small without any consequence, and a lineup featuring four perimeter players and either Josh Carlton or Mamadou Diarra could be a successful one for Kevin Ollie.
This will undoubtedly be a tough game, but other than the teams’ relative level of success so far, UConn actually faces a pretty favorable matchup. As long as the Huskies don’t fall into the pitfalls that have often held them up on the road this season, this game might be closer than the teams’ records would indicate.
PREDICTION: Houston 72, UConn 64