Houston wins its homecoming
You’ve heard it all season: The Big 12 is the best men’s basketball conference in the country.
But its top regular-season team, Kansas, isn’t going to repeat as national champion. Nor will its conference tournament champ, Texas, win it all. Both terrific teams will fall short of the Final Four, as will the Big 12’s other five squads in the NCAA Tournament field.
Which team, then, will be the last one standing? Ironically enough, it’ll be one of the four that are joining the Big 12 on July 1.
And this national champ will get to cut down the nets in its own dang backyard.
The pick is in, and it’s Midwest Region No. 1 seed Houston.
The Cougars are built for this. Their defense is terrifying. Their fearlessness is intimidating. And their coach, Kelvin Sampson, has never been better.
The Cougars have been building to this. They reached the Final Four in 2021, with Marcus Sasser, Tramon Mark, Reggie Chaney and Jamal Shead all contributing. They got back to the Elite Eight in 2022 even without an injured Sasser, their most talented player. And this season’s squad is — by a mile — the best of the three.
But what about Sasser’s groin injury that caused him to miss the American Athletic Conference tournament final? He’ll be OK. Sampson was willing to lose against Memphis — which the Cougars did on Sunday — if it meant getting Sasser completely ready for the Big Dance.
“I don’t think I could have lived with myself had he played today and got hurt,” Sampson said.
“We’re 31-3. We’ll be all right.” At NRG Stadium — 5½ miles from the heart of campus — they’ll chop down UConn in one semifinal. And in the title game, they’ll end the surprising run of first-year coach Jon Scheyer and Duke.
The Blue Devils weren’t so hot for much of the season, but they’re soaring into the tournament on a nine-game winning streak. They have the goods to get to Houston, but Houston is Cougar country.
It’s no Big 12, but there’s nothing wrong with the AAC. And just consider this: Sasser was named the AAC’s player of the year, Shead its defensive player of the year, Jarace Walker its freshman of the year, Chaney its sixth man of the year and J’Wan Roberts — who had 20 rebounds on Sunday — its most improved player. The terrific Mark still is in the fold, too.
You’re going to hear all those names a whole lot over the next three weeks.