(Image: Matt Riley, Virginia Athletics)
Virginia will play their first road game of the season on Tuesday night when they face the Houston Cougars. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 PM Eastern, televised on ESPN.
The Houston Basics
Houston, ranked 15th in the latest AP poll, enters the contest with a 2-0 record. They needed overtime in the opener to pull away from a feisty Hofstra team, then solidly thumped Rice on Friday night.
Coming off of a Final Four appearance last season, this is a new cast of Cougars. Head Coach Kelvin Sampson turned to the transfer portal to plug holes, with three new additions of that variety in the rotation.. There are also a pair of sophomores in important roles that only saw limited minutes a year ago. In that way, they’re similar to Virginia. A team that’s still figuring out where all the pieces fit.
The Cougars are led by junior point guard Marcus Sasser (25.5 ppg). The most notable returner from their Final Four team, he’s made the jump to stardom. Senior guard Kyler Edwards (14.0 ppg), a transfer from Texas Tech, headlined Sampson’s off-season additions. That pair has combined to score 49% of Houston’s points through their first two games.
They’ll go eight or nine deep. While there are some new faces, it’s an experienced group. They have five seniors in the rotation, including three using their extra year of eligibility.
-Sophomore guard Tramon Mark, a likely starter, has missed Houston’s first two games due to an injury. His status for Tuesday is unknown. (UPDATE: Mark has been ruled out)
-Kyler Edwards, then a freshman at Texas Tech, scored 12 points against Virginia in the 2019 National Championship game.
-Houston is riding a 27-game home winning streak. The last loss came at the hands of Oklahoma State in December of 2019.
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Battle On The Glass
Houston is aggressive in every aspect of the game, particularly in attacking the offensive glass. Sampson’s teams consistently rank among the best in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. If there’s one statistical category to watch closely, that’s it.
Virginia has uncharacteristically struggled in their first two outings to limit opponents to one shot, much to the frustration of Tony Bennett. It’s a basic tenet of Bennett-Ball, don’t turn the ball over and don’t give the other team extra shots. To pull out a win over Houston, it’s crucial that all five on the court are committed to finishing defensive possessions with the rebound. The Cougars will get their share because that’s what they do, but the Hoos can’t allow it to be a decisive advantage.
Especially look out for sophomore forward J’Wan Roberts In 23 minutes per game off the bench, he’s averaging 12 rebounds. Including a whopping five offensive boards. He’s a specialist.
Point Guard Clash
This is going to be a great matchup between two breakout stars in the college game, Virginia’s Reece Beekman and Houston’s Marcus Sasser. It’s strength on strength. Beekman has the makings of an ACC Defensive Player of the Year, while Sasser is one of the best scorers at the lead guard spot in the country.
Early-season stats are almost certainly inflated, but Sasser seems to have legitimately made a big leap. He’s become a true three-level scorer, and doing so in a very efficient manner. Meanwhile, Beekman is bringing back memories of Malcolm Brogdon defensively. He established himself as UVA’s best perimeter defender last season,, and has now taken it to an entirely new level.
It’ll be fun. For neutral observers anyway. As UVA fans, we’ll sweat out every possession as usual.
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Virginia senior forward Jayden Gardner knows Houston well. He spent his first three years at East Carolina playing in the same conference. Arguably his best performances came against the Cougars. In Jayden’s last two games against Houston going back to his sophomore year, he averaged 25 points and 17 rebounds. More than earning his nickname and Houston’s respect.
Don’t believe me? Listen to Kelvin Sampson.
Ideally, the Hoos won’t need that type of heroic performance from Gardner. But let’s hope he packs his cape in case. Gardner is currently leading Virginia in scoring (18.0 ppg) and rebounding (8.5 rpg). I wouldn’t expect that to change.
M&M vs The Aussie
As usual this early in the season, Tony Bennett is still experimenting with his rotation. In the opener vs Navy, he relied heavily on senior Kody Stattmann off the bench. Young sharpshooters Carson McCorkle and Taine Murray only made brief appearances for a total of three minutes. In game two vs Radford, the script flipped. Murray and McCorkle were subbed in first, and each saw extended playing time.
It’ll be interesting to see which direction Bennett goes against Houston. The young duo represented themselves well last time out. But that was Radford. It could be that he trusts the veteran Stattmann more in a hostile environment and on a bigger stage. Then again, there might be room for them all. It’s clear that he’s searching for at least one of the trio to establish themselves and solidify a role.
A subplot in all this is the way Taine Murray was used on Friday. Bennett went to a four-guard lineup, making the 6’5 Murray essentially the power forward. And it actually wasn’t the first time. The same thing happened during Murray’s short stint against Navy. It was very effective on Friday. Houston will occasionally use a four-guard look of their own. So there’s an opportunity for UVA to go there again. Something to watch for.
Be sure to tune in for the pregame show at 7:30 PM Tuesday night on the Locker Room Access Facebook page. Mark Jerome and the gang will get you ready for tipoff.