PREVIEW: Houston Cougars basketball opens NCAA Tournament versus Northern Kentucky

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ron Jenkins/AP/Shutterstock (13810981m) Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) looks to pass over Cincinnati guard David DeJulius (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, in Fort Worth, Texas AAC Cincinnati Houston Basketball, Fort Worth, United States – 11 Mar 2023

PREVIEW: Houston Cougars basketball opens NCAA Tournament versus Northern Kentucky

The NCAA Tournament is finally here, and the one-seed Houston Cougars basketball team of the Midwest Region will begin its road to championship against 16-seed Northern Kentucky on Thursday night at Legacy Arena.

All eyes are on Houston (31-3) senior guard Marcus Sasser and whether he will be ready to play. Head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters on Wednesday Sasser will be a game-time decision against the Norse.

Northern Kentucky (22-12) enters the matchup on a five-game winning streak. The Norse won the Horizon League postseason tournament to earn the right to play in the NCAA Tournament. Northern Kentucky defeated Cleveland State, 63-61, in the championship game.

While Houston is heavily favored going into the game, the Cougars are not looking ahead or taking the Norse for granted. The players know every team in the tournament has the potential to win on any given night.

“Nobody wants to lose,” Houston Cougars forward J’Wan Roberts said. “At this time everybody [is] going to give it their all. Sacrifice their bodies for anything because nobody wants to go home. I feel like everybody in this tournament [is] playing for the one goal.

“Going into any game that we have further, we’re going to get their best, and they are going to get our best. Let the tougher team win.”

When it comes to the Norse, it all begins with junior guard Marques Warrick. He leads Northern Kentucky in scoring, averaging 19.1 points per game. He is left-handed and has a knack for making plays off the bounce and getting to the free-throw line, Sampson said.

“It’s hard to keep him off his left — every team he’s played against has tried to make him go right, so he knows how to [get back to his] left,” Sampson said.

The Houston head coach also had praise for sophomore guard Sam Vinson because of his basketball IQ. Vinson is the team’s second-leading scorer with 11.7 per contest and he also averaged 2.4 steals a game.

Sampson also lauded senior forward Chris Brandon for his ability to rebound. Brandon leads the Norse with 9.8 rebounds per outing.

“They know their strengths, and they really play together,” junior guard Jamal Shead said. “You can tell those guys have a lot of good chemistry just by [the] film. They play together, everybody shares the ball well, [and] nobody looks selfish.”

The biggest challenge Northern Kentucky poses is with its unique defense. The Norse run a matchup zone, which is not a common type of defense and creates a lot of chaos for opposing offenses.

“They are very subjective with their defense,” Sampson said. “It’s a matchup, switching, stripping, grabbing, turn you over. They force you to play in a way you haven’t seen before.”

Against Cleveland State in the Horizon League Championship, Northern Kentucky forced 17 turnovers and held the Vikings to just 24-of-57 shooting from the field. The Norse are tied for seventh in the country in steals.

“You know, it doesn’t matter who plays against them, you are going to have possessions where you look lost because they don’t do anything that has anything to do with the plays or sets or actions that we’ve run this year,” Sampson stated.

Houston and Northern Kentucky will meet for the first time in men’s basketball. The winner between the two teams will play the winner of eight-seed Iowa versus nine-seed Auburn.

Thursday’s game is scheduled to tip off at approximately 8:20 p.m. CT on TNT. Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Grant Hill will be on the TV call.

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