PREVIEW: No. 1 Houston Cougars basketball hosts Tulane Green Wave in potential regular season title-clinching game

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13774839v) Houston guard Tramon Mark (12) drives around Memphis guard Elijah McCadden (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston Memphis Basketball, Houston, United States – 19 Feb 2023

PREVIEW: No. 1 Houston Cougars basketball hosts Tulane Green Wave in potential regular season title-clinching game

No. 1 Houston Cougars basketball has a chance to secure at least a share of the American Athletic Conference regular season championship if it can beat Tulane on Wednesday evening.

The Cougars (25-2, 13-1 AAC) are coming off a victory over Memphis on Sunday, which was conference loss No. 4 for the Tigers. Tulane will enter Wednesday’s game in second place in the AAC. If Houston wins, it will also hand the Green Wave their fourth conference loss of the year.

For UH head coach Kelvin Sampson, however, his focus is not on securing the AAC regular season title, it is on his team continuing to improve in specific areas heading into March.

“My focus has always been on what do we have to do to get better,” Sampson said on a Tuesday morning Zoom call. “I’m sure that sucks as a response, but that is just the way I am. Looking back at the tape, I was just disappointed in so many things that we did on Sunday. We have to play better, and we can play better.”

Sampson has a checklist of things he wants his team to refine. The Cougars need to work on playing better with 13-or-14-point leads and need to do a better job at getting other people involved in offensive rebounding, he said.

The head coach is well aware of the implications that a win on Wednesday would secure for his team, but he chooses not to zoom in on it.

“We need to get better at [the checklist], and that is kind of where I am focused at,” Sampson said.

When it comes to Tulane (17-7, 10-3 AAC), it is entering Fertitta Center on a five-game winning streak that includes three overtime victories. After the Green Wave lost to the Cougars on Jan. 17, they fell to the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in overtime in their next contest. Tulane then shook it off and began its winning streak.

Sampson praised sophomore guard Jalen Cook heading into Wednesday’s matchup. Cook is averaging 20.1 points on 44.9% shooting from the field and 5.2 assists per game this season. He has scored 20 or more points in six straight games. The last game he didn’t crack the threshold was against Houston.

“He’s playing with a hot hand right now … When you got as someone as talented as he is, just giving him complete freedom is how you get the best out of him,” Sampson said.

Tulane has a three-headed monster, with junior guard Jaylen Forbes and junior forward Kevin Cross joining Cook.

“Cross is kind of a jack of all trades,” Sampson said. “He is pretty good at everything. High basketball IQ, can really pass. [He is] 6-9, 240. He’s got a big body, great hands. Forbes can get 25. Cook is just a jitterbug, talented, really talented. Always has been.”

Forbes is averaging 18.8 points per contest, and Cross is putting up 15.5 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds per outing.

“Those three guys present a big problem,” Sampson said. “There is a reason why they are 10-3 in the league. You got three elite American Athletic Conference players. I mean, those guys are first-team, all-conference caliber.”

Wednesday’s game between Houston and Tulane will air on ESPNU and tipoff at 8 p.m., and it will also be on KPRC 950 AM radio.

“Really impressed with Tulane,” Sampson said. “They are a much better team now than when we played them.”

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