Mandatory Credit: Photo by Rogelio V Solis/AP/Shutterstock (13832148a) Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) dribbles up court in the second half of the first round of a college basketball game against Northern Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., . Houston won 63-52 NCAA Houston Men’s Basketball, Birmingham, United States – 16 Mar 2023
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The stage is set for the 1-seed Houston Cougars basketball team to put the first-round NCAA Tournament woes in the rearview mirror when it faces off against 9-seed Auburn on Saturday evening.
Houston is entering the game with some health question marks in the backcourt. Senior guard Marcus Sasser missed the entire second half against Northern Kentucky, while junior guard Jamal Shead hyperextended his right knee. Both said Friday they would play against the Tigers.
When it comes to Auburn, Shead said they would pose a big challenge because of how well they play together.
“When one person gets going, they try to go back to him,” Shead said. “You know, they play together. They’re a really good team. They’ve got a lot of good pieces. Especially K.D. Johnson coming off the bench. They have a lot of things you would want in a college program, so they’re a really good team.”
The leading scorer for Auburn is sophomore forward Johni Broome. He averages 14.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game. He had 19 points, 12 rebounds, and a whopping five blocks against Iowa in the Tigers’ first-round NCAA Tournament game.
“[Broome] is very versatile, great instincts to block shots, obviously,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters on Friday. “You know, when Bruce [Pearl] runs his flex actions, not a lot of centers these days, and he is a center, not a lot of centers can make those flex cut passes. He is pretty good at that. That tells me Bruce trusts him.”
One of Auburn’s biggest strengths is its depth, both Sampson and Shead said on Friday. The Tigers (21-12) have four different players that average double-figure scoring numbers.
Junior guard Wendell Green Jr. averages 13.9 points and 4.1 assists per game. Senior forward Jaylin Williams posts 11.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest, and senior guard Allen Flanigan puts up 10.1 points per matchup.
“Their starting five is very athletic, great size, a lot like Alabama,” Sampson said.
Another challenge Houston will have to overcome is the plethora of Auburn fans that will be in attendance on Saturday. The Tigers’ campus is roughly 111 miles southeast of Legacy Arena, which is about a two-hour drive.
“We think tomorrow is going to be probably 75 percent, 80 percent of Auburn fans … We’re just going to treat it like a road game,” Sasser said. “When we go into road games, we always say it’s just us versus everybody. That’s one of our sayings that we say before every road game, and that’s the saying we’re going to say tomorrow to try to go out there and get the W like it is a road game.”
From the Auburn perspective, the Tigers know they will be in for a physical battle against Houston. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said their biggest emphasis against the Cougars would be keeping them off the glass.
“We’re going to have to put bodies on bodies, and some of our guys may not be able to get a rebound, but they have to make sure that their matchup doesn’t get a rebound,” Pearl said. “So, it will be our biggest challenge tomorrow … keeping Houston off the glass.”
Houston is entering Saturday’s matchup after struggling on the boards against Northern Kentucky. The Cougars gave up 18 offensive rebounds, which led to 21 second-chance points.
“Our approach has to change,” Shead said. “You know, [Sampson] brought up ECU. He brought up Memphis, the last game. You know, we come out with the wrong mindset, and we don’t play the right way. We have to change our approach coming into tomorrow’s game because, you know, if we don’t, we could be going home early.”
Houston and Auburn are set to tip off at approximately 6:10 p.m. CT, and it will air on TBS with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, and Tracy Wolfson on the call.