When the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team takes on the Houston Cougars on Saturday night, it will be for just the second time in history.
These two programs do not share a lot of history, and with Houston playing in the American Athletic Conference, Orange fans have not gotten much face time with their opponent, who holds the No. 2 Seed in the Midwest Region. Who are the Cougars? What have they done this year to deserve such a high seed? And most importantly: how does Syracuse matchup?
Houston was consistently ranked one of the best teams in the country this year, finishing the regular season ranked 6th in both the AP and Coaches poll, 4th in KenPom, and 6th in nERD. To put it bluntly: Houston hasn’t been this good since Phi Slama Jama.
You may remember coach Kelvin Sampson from one of his many stops along the collegiate and professional coaching ranks, and returned from his NCAA exile to build his best team since his days at Oklahoma. (You may hear this a bunch Saturday, so let’s get it out now: the only time Sampson and Jim Boeheim faced off was in 2003). He’s built an incredibly balanced and veteran team that ranked top 10 nationally in both offense and defense and earned numerous postseason honors.
Junior Quentin Grimes shared player of the year honors in the American Athletic Conference, while senior DeJon Jarreau and senior Justin Gorham were named Defensive Player of the Year and the Most Improved Player, respectively. Additionally Grimes was selected to All-Conference First Team, Jarreau, Gorham, and Sophomore Marcus Sasser were selected to All-Conference Second Team.
What’s changed in March?
It started with not a whole lot. Houston dominated the AAC Tournament, trouncing the Cincinnati Bearcats with what had become their 2020-21 success story; Physical, in your face defense combined with quick, ruthless passing to set up three point shots. Opponents sell out to stop the three shooting? Work the ball down low and dominate. Sasser-Grimes-Jarreau went a combined 17-for-29 in the Championship Game, scoring 47 with no one playing more than 30 minutes.
Then Jarreau got hurt.
In the opening minute of the Cougar’s Round of 64 matchup against Cleveland State, the star suffered what’s been diagnosed as a hip pointer. He aggravated the injury on a hard screen in the second half of the Rutgers game, playing through the pain which was impacting his performance; he attempted just 4 shots in the second half, making 2, gutting out the game for his team.
“There was no way I was coming out of the game,” Jarreau said. “Coach (Kelvin) Sampson kept asking me, ‘Was I all right? Am I OK?’ Inside, I wasn’t OK. But I just wanted to win so bad.”
Overall, Houston had one of it’s worst offensive games against Rutgers, shooting just 37% from the field (they averaged 44% on the year) and 61% from the free throw line. While Jarreau isn’t the only player for the Cougers to watch for, he made The Athletic’s All-Glue team for a reason.
How does ‘Cuse match up?
All things considered, this is an interesting matchup on two key fronts. The obvious is Jarreau’s injury. With how hot Buddy Boeheim has been, Houston is almost guaranteed to stick Jearreau on Boeheim from the start. Buddy Buckets has been incredibly effective shooting off screens, and took advantage on all shots when West Virginia’s defensive matchups switched in the second half from their preferred Taz Sherman to Emmitt Matthews Jr. You can bet if Jarreau comes out glued to Buddy, a Cuse forward will screen him, and from there, the game will unfold based on how both stars react.
On the other side of the court, Houston’s offense is buoyed by three point shooting. They chuck the 3 on 42% of their possessions, converting about 36% of them. While Rutgers wasn’t able to slow the success of the Cougs’ 3 point shooting (Houston hit just over 36%), they limited them to just 22 attempts, which was just under 31% of possessions. The Orange have survived to date with a defense that’s limited free throws, kept opponents under 38% from the field, and been lucky versus both San Diego State and West Virginia.
There are plenty of upset ingredients here, especially when you throw in this final x-factor: The Cougars are 325th in adjusted tempo according to KenPom. In laymen’s terms: Houston hasn’t done well against teams that like to slow the game down, like what happens when you play ‘Cuse.
By no means does this tell us ‘Cuse should be favored, or has defeated a team of Houston’s caliber this year. It’s just that like most things in March, there’s enough there to make for some madness.