Busting Brackets

NCAA Basketball: Houston, Gonzaga, and UConn headlines Sunday Mailbag

Conference season is here and that means it is time for the return of the NCAA Basketball Sunday Mailbag. Here's a look at the first edition.

Dec 30, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA;  Houston Cougars guard L.J. Cryer (4) drives to the basket during
Dec 30, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Cougars guard L.J. Cryer (4) drives to the basket during / Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports
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Can Houston be as dominant in the Big 12 as they were in their last seasons in the American?- Patrick Madden @TheSportsJD

In case you were not aware Houston has now moved to the Big 12 and will now be tested twice a year by Kansas, Iowa State, and Baylor. The Cougars were a dominant squad before the move to the Big 12 and came into the season as one of the favorites in the league, so why would they not be as dominant in the Big 12?  

There are a lot of reasons to think that maybe the Cougars will falter but there is also a lot of evidence to suggest they won’t as well. One reason to think they may be is the talent that they lost. Houston lost All-American guard Marcus Sasser, lost their star big man Jarace Walker to the NBA draft and lost natural scorer Tramon Mark to Arkansas in the transfer portal. That is a ton of talent and that is what made many skeptical that the Cougars may be towards the end of their run.

There were some things that everyone forgot though. One was the pieces that the Cougars had coming back. Jamal Shead is one of the best passers and defenders in the entire country at the point guard spot. Emmanuel Sharp is a great shooter and J’Wan Roberts is dominant in the paint. Coach Sampson got a huge recruiting win in the transfer portal. LJ Cryer, a star at Baylor moved to Houston and could step right in to help fill the shoes left by former All-American Sasser. These pieces all fit very well together and it doesn’t hurt that they have a legendary coach.

The Cougars play a sustainable style that is going to be successful no matter who is on the team. They play a smothering havoc-style defense for the full 40 minutes and use that to get easy baskets in transition. When Houston is not getting easy baskets in transition they run a low turnover style of offense that leads to open threes and easy baskets inside. They get fouled a lot, but most importantly Houston and coach Sampson can win a lot of games without much offense. Houston doesn’t need to and likely won’t score 70 most nights. The defense is elite and coupled with elite rebounding you have Houston basketball during the Coach Sampson era in a nutshell. Defense always travels.

The other thing about Houston is that they play their best against the best teams. This year they head into conference play at 12-0 and 4 quad 1 wins. They have beaten Utah and Dayton on neutral court. They also beat Texas A&M on a neutral court and won at Xavier. In all of those games, the Cougars were able to score when they wanted, get out and run when they wanted, and keep the game at their pace for the duration.

The Cougars are hard to play because they force their opponents to expel so much energy on the offensive end that by the end of the game they don’t have much left. Houston is going to be just fine in the Big 12 and they have the pieces to beat Kansas and Baylor. I can not wait to watch that league unfold especially at the top.