Scouting Arizona's opponent for the Sweet 16
Arizona is through to the regional semifinal round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.
It got there by dispatching 16th-seeded Wright State in the first round and then outlasting ninth-seeded TCU in the second round. After getting all it could handle for 40 minutes and then an extra five against the Horned Frogs, somehow it’ll get tougher in the Sweet 16. Houston awaits. In KenPom’s rankings, there are only two teams ahead of the Wildcats: No. 1 seed Gonzaga, and No. 5 seed Houston.
That’s right, the Cougars, with the 10th-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country and the 10th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, sit just behind the Zags and just ahead of the Wildcats. Coach Kelvin Sampson has an all-around excellent outfit.
Tip-off in this one is set for 7 p.m. PT on TBS Thursday in San Antonio. Here’s what you need to know about the Cougars:
The Skinny on Houston
Record: 31-5, 15-3 American
Houston’s five losses this season: Wisconsin by two, Alabama by one, SMU by two, Memphis by 10, and then Memphis again by 14 (Penny got that smoke). So, unless your coach is Penny Hardaway, you ain’t beating Houston by much if you do manage to beat them.
While it’s true the Cougars went 0-4 against teams that made the Field of 64 (they did beat First Four loser Bryant), they were under-seeded as a 5 and have pretty convincingly beaten UAB (82-68) and Illinois (68-53) to book a trip to the Sweet 16 for the third straight season.
KenPom ranking: 2nd
TCU told the rest of the remaining field at the NCAA Tournament that if you want to beat the Wildcats, you can give yourself a good chance to do so by taking it to them inside. Not every team is going to have a 6-foot-11, 268-pound Eddie Lampkin to send crashing into Christian Koloko in the paint every time down the court, but teams can replicate the intensity that TCU played with.
It took Kerr Kriisa returning to the floor to provide Arizona with a jolt and then Bennedict Mathurin going absolutely bonkers to carry the Wildcats through to the end.
Houston isn’t the tallest, and Lampkin has close to 30 pounds on the Cougars’ biggest post player—Josh Carlton—but what it does well it does exceptionally well. The Cougars play better in close.
This is one of college basketball’s best offensive rebounding teams, and that fact presents the most interesting of risk-reward propositions in the regional semifinals.
Here’s what one Pac-12 assistant coach told ESPN:
“Sometimes the risk isn’t worth the reward when it comes to offensive rebounding. They (the Wildcats) are so good in transition offense, are you willing to sacrifice getting an offensive rebound? Because once you get it, are you able to score over (Christian) Koloko, (Azuolas) Tubelis, and (Dalen) Terry when you get it? Probably not. But you have to play physical and tough. If you can’t play with some sort of physicality against them, you have no chance. Will the referees allow (Houston) to be physical?
Houston rebounds nearly 38% of its own misses on the offensive end, a rate that ranks third nationally. The Cougars grabbed 10 against UAB and then 15 against Illinois. Arizona gave up 20 to TCU.
The Cougar profile suggests they aren’t going to jack triples (148th in 3-point rate, 34% on them), though they took 22 against Illinois, but will rather commit bodies to the painted area. Houston shoots it well (53.6% effective field goal rate), but if you crash the glass and don’t secure the boards, you’re vulnerable at the other end.
Arizona has made its hay in second halves this season with quick-strike runs where it gets downhill and creates separation from its opponent in a flash. TCU didn’t allow the Wildcats to generate that run, but a team that crashes the boards runs the risk of handing a four- or five-minute stretch to the Wildcats where they can have runouts and unleash their athletes.
Houston wants to slow the game to a grind. Arizona wants to supercharge the tempo. Whichever team controls the boards is going to be able to dictate how that battle of styles plays out.
Conversely, you might be able to get Christian Koloko into foul trouble or play Azuolas Tubelis—whose energy and effort level against TCU was a serious and glaring issue—off the floor if mucking it up under the basket and going hard after the boards.
Secondary to the rebounding battle will be Arizona’s ability to knock down perimeter shots against the Cougars.
Houston’s 3-point defense is elite. Teams only make 29% of their looks against the Cougars (ninth nationally in terms of percentage allowed) and yet the 3-point shot consists of more than 40% of the looks the Cougars have faced all year. As a function of overall shots faced, there are only a handful of defenses that see more volume from beyond the arc than Houston’s.
Arizona got away from its post game and a thriving Koloko as the game against TCU wore on and started settling. After an 11-for-20 showing from beyond the arc against Wright State, Arizona was 5-for-27 against the Horned Frogs.
Kerr Kriisa—1-for-10 from 3 with two turnovers and only one assist against TCU—nearly shot the Wildcats out of the game.
Yes, it was his first game back on the floor from a nasty ankle sprain, but Arizona needs him to be better from beyond the arc or more selective with those shots. Defenses have to respect him, but if the ankle is still not feeling right after a few misses, move the ball.
KenPom says: Houston wins 74-73, 52% chance to win
Calling for a 5-1 upset in the Sweet 16 is interesting, but KenPom loves the Cougars’ analytical profile.
Vegas has Arizona as the 1.5-point favorite, but the Wildcats haven’t been convincing in either of their first two games. Much of the talk prior to the tournament was about how high a level Arizona was playing at and how few teams appeared to be able to slow them down.
Now, Houston is viewed as a serious and formidable opponent. Arizona is still one of if not the most talented team in the field. It has combustibility and multiple guys who can carry an offensive burden in a pinch. Mathurin and Koloko combined for 58 points by themselves against TCU.
Houston is only giving up 59 a game this year. Total.
It should be tight. Arizona has done pretty well in tight ball games this season.