John P. Lopez – Sit Sasser? Kelvin Sampson and the toughest decision he ever will make

Mar 5, 2023; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Houston Cougars guard Marcus Sasser (0) reacts after a three point basket during the first half against the Memphis Tigers at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

John P. Lopez – Sit Sasser? Kelvin Sampson and the toughest decision he ever will make

It doesn’t have to be obvious. It just has to be.

Sit Marcus Sasser, Kelvin Sampson.

The stakes are too high, and this Houston Cougars team is too good to risk having the best player on the team possibly aggravate a groin injury that appears to be the only thing standing between them and a legitimate chance to play in the Final Four at NRG Stadium the first weekend in April.

You know it. I know it. We all know it.

Even Kelvin Sampson knows these Coogs could beat first-round opponent Northern Kentucky in any other environment and in any other tournament playing mostly bench players. In those types of games, it wouldn’t even be a question; Sasser would sit.

The problem is this is the NCAA Tournament. It’s madness and upsets and Cinderella sneakers and buzzer-beaters. It’s all the basketball world’s eyes watching and a crazy bounce of the ball or two perhaps changing fates.

Nevertheless, the risk versus reward of playing a less than 100-percent Sasser is potentially paradigm-shifting as the tournament progresses. The opponents get much, much tougher, and the two days of extra rest from an ugly-looking injury that occurred just five days ago could be huge.

Sampson was noncommittal Wednesday when asked about Sasser’s status, leaning on the recommendations of doctors and trainers. An old-school coach who has seen more than his share of craziness on a basketball court, Sampson also alluded to the one big argument against sitting a player on such a great stage.

Respect the game. Respect the opponent. Never assume.

“I know how hard it is to win a game,” Sampson said. “If the doctors think he can play and he wants to play, he’ll play.”

He also said he would do what is best for the team and Sasser.

Wink, wink? Coogs fans should hope so.

Sasser, too, spoke of giving it his all, even if less than 100%. And during the Coogs’ open practice, Sasser did indeed look less than 100%, jogging lightly, knocking down a few shots, running through drills at less than full-speed.

“If I can go,” Sasser said, “I’ll go.”

It will be the toughest decision Sampson might ever make, but it would be the right decision. Do it. Sit Sasser. Sampson could simply lean on doctors’ and trainers’ “recommendations,” and nothing about keeping Sasser on the bench for competitive reasons would have to be mentioned.

It would be an easy out, could better set up the Cougars for a much-anticipated deep tournament run, and they should win this game easily without Sasser. Oddsmakers have established Houston as a 19.5-point favorite, the largest point spread in the first round of the tournament despite Sasser’s injury. The Coogs’ strength is their depth, and Sasser’s presumed replacement, Jamal Shead, gives them a much more than adequate replacement.

The Norse, meanwhile, are a 22-12 team that has lost to the likes of Florida Gulf Coast, Toledo, and Oakland. The Norse also lost to Cincinnati, which UH handled without Sasser playing in the second half of the AAC Tournament. Another loss was by 22 points to Tournament team Kent State, which the Coogs beat.

Then there’s this: If Sasser sits in the first round and gets another two days to rehabilitate his injury, the remainder of the Midwest bracket looks very favorable, at least until they reach the Elite Eight.

In the second round, the Cougars would face either Iowa or Auburn – a pair of teams struggling in recent weeks. Auburn finished with just four wins over its final 12 games. Iowa lost four of its final six games of the year. Meanwhile, none of the potential Sweet 16 opponents – Miami, Indiana, Kent State, and Drake – offer any realistic scare, with Miami’s best player and only big in a small lineup, Norchad Omier, nursing a badly sprained ankle. Indiana finished second in the Big Ten but also faded, losing three of its final six. Sure, there are some tough draws at the bottom of the Midwest Bracket, but the Coogs would not face the likes of Iowa State, Texas, Xavier, or Texas A&M until the Elite Eight at the earliest.

Houston and NRG Stadium are well within the Cougars’ sights, and the only thing they could ask for at this point is a fully-healthy Marcus Sasser.

“He did some things today, broke a sweat, did some shooting drills,” Sampson said Wednesday. “He didn’t go full speed, so that’s the update. I don’t know; we will see. It is one of those infamous game-time decisions.”

He knows. You know. Everyone knows. If there’s any doubt, sit Sasser. The Cougars are that good and that ready to make a big run, but only when Sasser can go full-speed and carry this team back to Houston.

That day is not Thursday.

Related Posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *