NCAA Tournament Sleeper Pick: Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars

A revamped offense likely will determine Houston's chances of a second consecutive Final Four appearance
NCAA Tournament Houston Cougars

Before lambasting our decision to categorize Houston as a “sleeper” pick since the Cougars were profiled last year and made a successful run to the Final Four, recall that the NCAA tournament selection committee does not use past performance in constructing its 68-team bracket.

Past performance, however, can be used in our selection criteria for these weekly profiles. Even with last March’s success, the Cougars remain just far enough off the national radar that they remain a viable dark horse for a return trip. The question is whether bettors can hunt out good value for Kelvin Sampson’s team as a Final Four pick or even to cut down the nets in New Orleans.

The defense never rests in H-town

If the Cougars do carry any sense of national brand, it is with their defense. Houston finished last season leading the nation in defensive field goal percentage, second in scoring defense, and ninth in 3-point defensive field goal percentage. The Cougars have maintained the status quo in 2021-22, again leading the country in defensive field goal percentage (36.8%) while ranking eighth in scoring defense (59.0) and 22nd defending the 3-point line (29.6%).

There is plenty to like about Sampson’s defense regardless of how you measure it. Beyond the top-line numbers, Houston is currently the only team in the AP Top 25 to rank among the top 25 Division I teams for the following differential categories: field goal percentage (3rd), points (4th), blocks (7th), rebounds (15th), turnovers (25th), and steals (25th).

Looking at the advanced KenPom metrics, the Cougars are one of six teams to rank in the top 20 for both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. In a small surprise, Houston’s offensive efficiency of 117.4 points per 100 possessions ranks 13th and slightly outpaces its defensive prowess — the Cougars rank 16th at 91.8 points allowed per 100 possessions and are among the nation’s best in holding opponents to a low shooting percentage inside the arc, at 42.3%.

Houston also extends its defense to challenge opponents, forcing turnovers better than once every five possessions and generating steals nearly once per eight possessions. And if opponents get past the initial waves of resistance, Fabian White and Josh Carlton are formidable last lines of defense. The pair have combined for 77 blocks.

An offense that is still a work in progress

Sampson has had to adjust offensively without injured guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, both of whom are out for the season. Losing Sasser was a particularly tough blow as he averaged 13.7 points last season and upped that to 17.7 per game while shooting 43.5% from deep in Houston’s first 12 contests this year.

Sometimes, the 6-foot-11 Carlton operates as a point center for the Cougars, and is one of three main offensive options with White and Kyler Edwards. But it is Edwards who will likely determine if Houston can make back-to-back Final Four appearances for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days of 1982-84.

Edwards leads active Cougars players in scoring at 13.8 points per game and has made a team-leading 69 3-pointers. But the 6-foot-4 transfer from Texas Tech with Final Four experience from 2019 with the Red Raiders also epitomizes the term “streaky shooter.” Edwards has hit five or more 3-pointers in five games but is also the only Division I player to go 0 for 7 or worse from beyond the arc in at least three contests.

Edwards showed signs of snapping out of a month-long funk in Wednesday’s 81-67 win at Tulane, going 4 for 10 from beyond the arc and scoring 21 points for his first 20-point effort in eight games. Edwards is going to get his shots — he has attempted at least eight 3-pointers in 13 games this year. The question is whether he can make them at a consistent clip.

Some questions and concerns

Since Edwards could run hot and cold, there is always the worry he could shoot the Cougars out of a game as much as he can be a difference-maker when hot. Another point of contention is Houston’s schedule in the sense that it does not get consistently challenged in the American Athletic Conference. One could make the same type of argument about Gonzaga cutting a swath through the West Coast Conference, but the Bulldogs are far less prone to slip-ups in league play.

Houston does not have a true signature non-conference victory despite owning wins over Virginia, Oregon, and Oklahoma State. All three are currently on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble and in need of marquee wins themselves. The Cougars have a two-point loss to Wisconsin on a neutral floor and a one-point loss at Alabama, but Sasser played in both contests.

Of Houston’s two league defeats, one was a two-point loss at SMU, its closest pursuer, and the other a 10-point home loss to a highly erratic and somewhat underachieving Memphis team. The Cougars have a chance to make a point to the selection committee about those losses as they play both teams over the next 10 days and may be able to help their chances of getting a protected top-four seed.

So what are the plays?

There are limited options for Final Four futures on Houston, but of those offering, FanDuel has the best current listing at +750, followed by SI Sportsbook at +700 and PointsBet at +600. DraftKings and WynnBET round out those plays at +550 and +500, respectively, as the Cougars are among the top 12 to 16 options available depending on your sportsbook of choice.

It is still somewhat difficult to jump on the bandwagon for a Houston national title without Sasser, because an elite scorer is almost always a prerequisite for an NCAA tournament champion. Eleven of the last 12 champions — Kentucky being the exception in 2012 — had one scorer average at least 15 points, and Sasser will not be playing next month.

That said, there are still some plays to consider. Caesars, MaximBet, and FanDuel all list the Cougars as +4000 options to cut down the nets in New Orleans, and both DraftKings and PointsBet lurk close behind at +3500. Betway checks in at +3300, while BetRivers and Barstool Sportsbook trail closely at +3200. BetMGM, WynnBET, and SI are all listing Houston at +3000.

Houston does not have the element of surprise this year, and practically any path to the Final Four will be more difficult as well. The Cougars got to Lucas Oil Stadium last March defeating four double-digit seeds before running into eventual champion Baylor. Sampson’s team has the capability of stringing together four wins, but backing the Cougars on that journey may require more bravery this time around.

Photo: Thomas Shea/USA TODAY


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