While much of the oxygen surrounding a potential NCAA Tournament champion has been devoted to Gonzaga and Baylor — and rightfully so — one of the beauties of March Madness is that the team eventually crowned national champion has truly earned that title by winning six (or potentially seven for a First Four team) games before being immortalized in that season’s version of “One Shining Moment.”
Wagering on college basketball during the pandemic has been challenging for a host of reasons, including no fans at most games, questions surrounding player availability due to COVID-19, and programs coming in and out of “pause” for various lengths of times. Those pauses have affected powerhouse teams with wildly varying results — Villanova did not play for nearly a month yet has maintained a high level of play and is ranked third in the country. Michigan State, which recently returned after a three-week spell on the sidelines, is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.
Next month, the field of 68 will gather in an unprecedented manner as the NCAA has opted to use the state of Indiana as a tournament “bubble,” with games to be played at Division I schools across the state and in Indianapolis, site of the Final Four. An event already celebrated for its unpredictability and love of underdogs that has sports betting operators across the nation busy for an entire month is adding another layer of potential chaos.
In an unprecedented season like this, an unlikely champion feels fitting after not being able to crown one in 2020. Which brings us to an outsider pick for your consideration: the Houston Cougars, who bring plenty of potential bang for the buck at +2200 (William Hill), +1800 (PointsBet), or +1700 (FanDuel).
Playing in the long shadows in the Lone Star State
— Houston Men’s Hoops 🏀 🐾 (@UHCougarMBK) January 31, 2021
To be clear, this is not your parents’ Houston Cougars of the mid-1980s. There’s no Hakeem Olajuwon or Clyde Drexler dunking on opponents like in the days of “Phi Slamma Jamma,” when Houston reached back-to-back NCAA Tournament title games in 1983 and ’84 but lost to North Carolina State and Georgetown.
Kelvin Sampson’s team is a balanced outfit. Houston is No. 5 in both polls and comfortably atop the American Athletic Conference with a 10-2 conference record and 15-2 mark overall. In terms of advanced metrics, there is plenty to like about the Cougars — according to KenPom, they rank 18th in offensive efficiency and fifth defensively, making Houston one of just six schools to rank in the top 20 on both sides of the ball.
Yet, it can be argued Houston may be only the third-best team in its state. No. 2 Baylor is currently undefeated and running roughshod in the Big 12 — the Bears disposed of No. 6 Texas, itself a trendy darkhorse champion pick anywhere from +1500 to +1800, by double digits on the road Wednesday night. Iron sharpens iron in high-major conferences, and the lack of high-caliber opponents in the AAC is one of the few factors against Houston making a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Depth and defense travels, though
Sampson’s calling card at his previous stops in Washington State, Oklahoma, and Indiana before arriving in Houston was his focus on defense, and in order to play his demanding style on that end of the court, he needs bodies. Despite the season-long absence of forward Fabian White due to a torn ACL, the Cougars have nine players averaging at least 11 minutes. They are holding opponents to 57.5 points per game on 36.9% shooting, both marks good for second among Division I teams. Houston is also fifth nationally in 3-point defensive field goal percentage, limiting teams to 26.4% from beyond the arc.
On offense, Marcus Sasser has made leaps and bounds from his freshman to sophomore season, averaging 15.7 points, and Quentin Grimes — pacing Houston at 16.2 points per game — has found a comfort zone in his second season with the Cougars following his transfer from Kansas. The Cougars will not remind anyone of Gonzaga or Iowa offensively since they shoot just 41.4 percent, which could eventually be their downfall in a one-and-done setting, but they crash the boards like nobody’s business.
As a team, the Cougars are also the fourth-best offensive rebounding at a 40.4% rate this year, according to KenPom.
Senior Justin Gorham is rebounding at an 18.9% rate on the offensive glass, which is also fourth-best in the nation. pic.twitter.com/O9d0LacPiA
— Sean Marty (@Theseanmarty) January 7, 2021
Justin Gorham is averaging 10.2 rebounds, nearly half of them coming on the offensive end as Houston leads the nation in offensive rebounding by collecting 40.8% of its missed shots. Grimes and fellow 6-foot-5 guard Dejon Jarreau are also active on the glass, averaging 6.7 and 5.4 rebounds, respectively.
But what about the bracket and intangibles?
Most bracketologists have pegged Houston as a No. 2 seed, which offers a 50-50 chance of avoiding Gonzaga and Baylor until the Final Four. The Cougars do not have many opportunities to greatly enhance their tournament resume and vie for a No. 1 seed, though they still play AAC archrival Memphis twice and would be able to pick up a highly valued Quad 1 road win if the Tigers’ current NCAA NET ranking holds.
One last factor to consider on the plus side for the Cougars is their team culture. They were well on their way to a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance last season, and both Jarreau and Brison Gresham were on the 2019 team that reached the Sweet 16 and gave Kentucky all it could handle before suffering a 62-58 loss. And Sampson does have a Final Four appearance on his resume with Oklahoma in 2002.
In sum, things appear to be falling into place for Houston to have a chance at greatness next month. The Cougars will not be the flashiest team at the NCAA Tournament, but they might be the one that fattens your wallet if it all breaks right for them.