Houston vs Virginia Preview and Storylines
John Paul Jones Arena will be the site of a top-five clash on Saturday when the 2nd ranked Virginia Cavaliers host the 5th ranked Houston Cougars. Tipoff is scheduled for 2:00 PM Eastern, televised on ESPN 2.
Head Coach Kelvin Sampson has returned Houston to its status as one of the nation’s best programs. They’ve reached the Sweet Sixteen in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four appearance in 2021. This year’s team mixes in some talented freshmen along with featured players back from last season’s 32-win campaign, which included a 67-47 victory over the Wahoos In Houston. .
The Cougars enter with a 10-1 record. They were ranked #1 until being knocked off at home by Alabama last Saturday. The best win on their resume was over St. Mary’s, currently 15th in the NCAA’s NET rankings. They also beat Oregon on the road. As usual, defense has led the way. They’ve held opponents to under 50 points per game.
Everything starts with All-American candidate Marcus Sasser (16.2 PPG). The senior guard is back to form after missing the majority of last season with an injury. They have an otherwise balanced attack with players capable of stepping up on a given day, but Sasser is the one consistent. He led the Cougars with 19 points in last November’s win over Virginia.
Junior point guard Jamal Shead (7.5 PPG) is a true floor general, currently with a better than 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His constant on-ball pressure is really important to them defensively. Junior guard Tramon Mark (9.3 PPG) rounds out the starting backcourt. Also back after missing most of last season, he’s capable of being an explosive scorer.
It’s not a tall frontcourt. None of the regulars are listed at over 6’8”. But they’re very physical and athletic. Freshman Jarace Walker (9.4 PPG) is a projected first-round pick. He’s a load in the middle, and will knock down open jumpers as well. Junior forward J’Wan Roberts (9.3 PPG) has made a big leap this season. He’s their best rebounder, which is quite a statement on this team.
They’ll go eight or nine deep. Freshman wing Terrance Arceneaux (5.4 PPG) has struggled with his shot of late, but scored 15 in a November win over Oregon. Forward Reggie Chaney (3.6 PPG), in his fifth-season, is a nice experienced piece off the bench. Sophomore Ramon Walker (3.6 PPG) provides depth at guard. And sophomore forward Ja’Vier Francis (6.1 PPG) went off for a double-double on Tuesday against North Carolina A&T.
Virginia is known for its defense under Tony Bennett. And the Wahoos have been stout this season, top 30 in adjusted efficiency according to Bart Torvik. But Houston is number one in that category. They’ve held opponents to 49.4 points per game and a 31.6 field goal percentage, best nationally in both.
Houston is similar to the really good Florida State teams we’ve seen in the past. They’re aggressive, overplay everything, and just do a great job at being disruptive in the halfcourt. It’s hard to get into an offensive flow against them. Possessions often end in scrambles, forcing players to make individual plays. And then they back that up with great rim protection, among the national leaders in blocked shots.
The Cougars will be comfortable at Virginia’s pace too. Both teams rank among the slowest-paced in the country. This could be a first-to-50 type of game.
Battle On The Glass
Houston feasts on the offensive glass. It’s their trademark. They’ve rebounded 38.8% of their misses this season, fifth best in the country. Backup forward Ja’Vier Francis, in only 12 minutes per game, averages just about as many offensive boards as UVA’s two centers combined. And he’s third on their team. It can’t be overstated how important the offensive glass is to them.
Alabama did a great job in limiting Houston’s second chances. That was a big reason for the Tide coming out on top last weekend. UVA will need to do likewise. It’ll take a concentrated effort from the entire unit, as Houston attacks the glass relentlessly.
The top storyline going into this game is the status of Virginia’s Reece Beekman. He left very early in the JMU game with an injured hamstring. As of right now, we don’t know whether he’ll be available on Saturday. On the JWILLY Show Wednesday night, Coach Williford said Reece was “day to day” and had done “a little bit” at practice.
Reece is an immensely important player for Virginia, particularly in a game like this one. His defense on Marcus Sasser would help a lot. And he’s also the best UVA has at making those individual plays you need against the Cougars. Obviously what matters most is having Reece back to full strength for conference play though, even if that means sitting this game out.
If Reece can’t go, Kihei Clark will need to be an iron man. That’s a tough duty against Houston’s ball pressure. It would be interesting what Bennett does with his lineup under that scenario. No doubt the two freshmen would play more. We could see the jumbo package at times with Ben Vander Plas at guard. A little of all the above probably.
(Featured Image Credit: Getty Images)