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Preview: #2 Villanova Wildcats vs. #5 Houston Cougars

Houston, do we have a problem?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round - UAB vs Houston Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Another day, another dollar, another round. The Villanova Wildcats vanquished the Michigan Wolverines on Thursday night to set-up a Saturday match-up with the red hot Houston Cougars. The Wildcats will have a chance to punch a ticket to their third Final Four in five years. This is not a drill - I actually typed that sentence. Houston will be looking to advance to the program’s second straight Final Four - also not a drill.

Simply put, not many people really expected either program to be here at this point. Despite the metrics, many of the pundits did not think this Villanova team had the depth or the raw talent to really make a deep run in this tournament. As for Houston, while the squad is the darling of KenPom, many thought the Cougars’ soft schedule and lack of big wins would bite them come March. As is tradition, everyone is an idiot.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament South Regional-Arizona vs Houston Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Before we delve into this match-up, let’s look over the basics. The University of Houston (UH) is a public research university in Houston, Texas. Founded in 1927, UH is the the third-largest university in Texas with over 47,000 students.

Here are some random facts about the University of Houston:

  • The University of Houston is located in Houston, where the Villanova University Wildcats won the 2016 National Championship.
  • From 1947 until 1989 a live cougar mascot named Shasta was used. However, from 1989 until 2012, Shasta existed as only a costumed mascot. Although a current live mascot was adopted by the university through a partnership with the Houston Zoo, a costumed student is still used for game appearances

Here are three random alumni:

  • Lizzo
  • Dennis Quaid
  • Andrea Yates

The Houston Cougars have a rich basketball tradition and, as a program, significantly contributed to the growth of college basketball. In 1968, the underdog Cougars upset the undefeated and top-ranked UCLA Bruins in front of more than 50,000 fans at Houston’s Astrodome. In the early 1980s, the Phi Slama Jama teams - featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler - made headlines due to their fast-paced style and highlight reel dunks. In 1983, they suffered a dramatic, last-second loss in the 1983 NCAA Final (to Jimmy V’s NC State) that set a record for college basketball broadcasts and became an iconic moment in the history of the sport. Phi Slama Jama advanced to 3 consecutive NCAA Final Fours in 1982, 1983, and 1984.

Now, eighth year coach Kelvin Sampson has returned the Cougars to prominence. Sampson is well-known to college basketball fans as the former coach of both Oklahoma and Indiana. Villanova fans will remember that Sampson’s exit from Oklahoma in 2006 led to the decommitment of Scottie Reynolds - who ultimately ended up with the Wildcats. Sampson’s stint in Bloomington was short-lived as he resigned in 2008 due to allegations of severe NCAA violations. Indiana ended up with a three-year probation period while Sampson was hit with a five-year show cause penalty. He elected to head to the NBA, where he served as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Houston Rockets.

This year the Cougars finished 32-5 (15-3 AAC) and ran through the AAC tournament. On the eve of Selection Sunday, the Cougars were criticized for lacking any big wins, specifically out of conference. The Cougars best win of the season was over conference foe Memphis - who they beat once in three tries - while their best OOC win was arguably over Oklahoma State (33rd in KenPom). The Cougars’ unimpressive resume was the driving factor behind their seeding as a 5-seed, something that seemed insane at the time given the team’s KenPom metrics. Unsurprisingly, concerns that the Cougars were not sufficiently battle-tested during the season were resoundingly put to bed as Houston mowed over UAB, Illinois, and Arizona - three teams that all had lofty March goals.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round - UAB vs Houston Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I will now begin evaluating the Houston Cougars. As Jon Rothstein would say, “GRAB YOUR NITROGLYCERIN PILLS.” I need everyone to stay calm throughout the following few paragraphs - mama’s got you.

The Houston Cougars rank #2 overall in KenPom and Top-10 in both AdjO and AdjD. While the offense has gotten some attention recently, the Cougars are anchored by their defense. Houston ranks 3rd in eFG% defense and top-30 in turnovers. Oh, they also rank 3rd in Block%, 20th in Steal%, and 10th in 3P% - they are an absolute blanket on that end of the floor. Not a warm snuggly blanket - one that slowly suffocates you. Maybe like a weighted blanket.

So, Villanova’s first order of business on that end of the floor will be to protect the ball. As I fight off visions of Baylor (fragrance available Fall 2023), I remind myself that the sole fact that that game happened has made us more prepared for this one. Both Baylor and Tennessee boast - at least according to KenPom - a more aggressive brand of on-ball defense, with St. John’s not far behind. While Houston is playing possessed right now, at the very least, Villanova will not be completely blind-sided by this style of play.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Where are the holes in the Houston defense, you ask? What do we do, you scream? Well, to start, they have the propensity to foul a lot - something that will obviously be impacted by what style of whistle we see. Fouling the best free-throw team in the land is a risky proposition but, should the Cougars get handsy, Villanova will need to capitalize.

In the half-court, Houston will likely try to drive Villanova off the three point line and dare the ‘Cats to beat them inside. Frankly, I am not sure Villanova can win this game if the ‘Cats cannot - at least to some degree - win the battle at the arc. I would look for the ‘Cats to try and establish some movement in the paint early - especially given Samuels’ strong performance on Thursday. If ‘Nova can create a little noise inside - and shift the defense just enough to free up some outside shots - I have confidence the likes of Gillespie, Moore, and Daniels can knock down some shots. If there was ever a game to encourage Villanova to catch-and-shoot, this is it. Hesitancy, especially around the perimeter, will be punished.

On the offensive end, the Cougars aren’t as solid - but they are still a force. They are relentless in the paint and bull rush on the offensive glass. If you watched the Arizona game, it appeared at times that the Cougs had twice as many players under the basket - they are hyenas under there! The one saving grace for the ‘Cats is that Houston is a middle-of-the-road team from deep, ranking 116th in 3P%. This game does not appear to be one where the ’Cats are at risk of being bombed out of the gym. Given the Cougars’ slow pace of play (338th in tempo), this one is going to be a slow and efficient slog - something that, all things considered, benefits the ‘Cats. The Cougars also rank 77th in turnover%. While not bad by any means, it is potentially an area an aggressive Villanova defense can exploit.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars are an incredibly balanced and experienced team, with 7 players averaging in double-figures. Villanova’s priority will likely be Jamal Shead, a 6’1 sophomore guard coming off a 21 point, 6 assist performance against Arizona. Shead is a quick and crafty playmaker who can score off the dribble. He is also a great facilitator - a dangerous prospect with a team as balanced as the Cougars.

Shead is joined in the backcourt by 6’4 senior Kyler Edwards. Edwards is a skilled shooting guard - coming off an 18 point performance against Arizona wherein he chucked up 9 three (making 5 of them). If there is a potential perimeter threat to keep an eye on, it’s Edwards. I would expect Moore to catch the Shead assignment while a lankier defender - possible Slater - covers the larger Edwards. If Slater is looking for a redemption game, containing the dangerous Edwards would do it.

As for size, Houston’s Josh Carlton, a 6’11 senior, patrols the paint. The UConn transfer is a strong post scorer and is very active off-ball. Averaging 11 points a game, Carlton is definitely more of a defensive threat for a Villanova team that will need to establish some form of offense in the paint. Carlton struggles to shoot out from under the basket and can be very deferential on the offensive end. However, he’s a force on the glass - grabbing 7 rebounds against Arizona.

I expect Villanova to be open to making adjustments in this game based on a few factors. Houston’s defense is so sound that the ‘Cats will need to poke and prod for some openings. As potential vulnerabilities become visible, I expect Jay Wright to plan accordingly. Additionally, the officiating in this game will play a major role - especially if Houston is permitted to lean into their aggressive style unchecked. In addition to spelling a brutal 40 minutes for ‘Nova’s ballhandlers, such a whistle could negate Villanova’s advantage at the charity stripe. Finally, it’s a non-negotiable that Slater needs to be right for this game. Villanova cannot effectively counteract Houston’s balanced offensive attack without throwing out one of their own. A slow start from Slater - or Daniels or Dixon as was the case Thursday - would be devastating in this one.

Ok, let’s take a deep breath. Let’s pretend we are all Houston Cougar fans and we have logged onto our blog to read the Villanova preview. Let’s assume that the Houston Cougars have a charming and youthful blogger who writes riveting and engrossing previews - this is all hypothetical. In this hypothetical, their fans are in the comment sections worrying about playing a veteran, balanced, and battle-tested team with a Championship pedigree. A team that has grinded out win after win with a short rotation. Hell, Villanova beat Ohio State with two starters on the bench. They beat Michigan with just Jermaine Samuels on offense for the first half. They have a possessed cyborg point guard with vengeance in his heart. They have a cold-blooded guard who might just f*** around and drop 30. They have a AAC transfer who has been completely brainwashed to destroy. They have a struggling senior due to bounce back. They have a 6’8 big man that shoots threes like he’s taking a walk in the park. They are strong. They are smart. They play slowly. They drain foul shots.

I have no idea what will happen in this game -it’s probably the most difficult match-up I can recall for Villanova because, frankly, the ‘Cats rarely play teams as solid as themselves. Villanova is facing, well, the Villanova experience - a slow and methodical death by a thousand cuts. But, you know who else is facing the Villanova experience? Houston.

Let’s roll.