NCAAB
April 1, 2021

Final Four Preview: Houston Cougars

For the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days, the Houston Cougars are in the Final Four.

They have emerged out of the lackluster American Conference and a wild, upset-filled Midwest Region to be one of the four teams in the running for a national championship.

But do the Cougars have a realistic shot of winning it all? 

Final Four Preview: Gonzaga | Baylor | UCLA

How’d They Get Here

On paper, Houston looks the part of a Final Four team.

The Cougars are 28-3 on the season and perfect in non-conference games. During the AAC part of their schedule, Houston was 14-3, which actually made them the No. 2 seed in the AAC Tournament. After surviving a close call against Memphis in the semifinals, the Cougars thrashed Cincinnati 91-54 in the conference tournament final, securing a two-seed in the Big Dance.

Of course, the Cougars are the first team to reach the Final Four after defeating four double-digit seeds. In their defense, the Cougars can’t control who they play, although there have been some nervy moments. After taking care of Cleveland State in the First Round, Houston was in serious trouble against No. 10 Rutgers, only to score the last seven points of the game while the Scarlet Knights collapsed. 

The Cougars were able to get past No. 11 Syracuse in the Sweet 16 and then survive a furious comeback from No. 12 Oregon State in the Elite Eight. While beating Nos. 15, 10, 11, and 12 seeds doesn’t look good on paper, both Syracuse and Oregon State were playing far better than their seed would indicate heading into their game with Houston, so few should question whether the Cougars have earned their spot in the Final Four.

Key Player

Without question, Houston’s best player is junior guard Quentin Grimes.

After a modest freshman season at Kansas, Grimes transferred to Houston and has become a star with the Cougars.

During the 2019-20 season, he and Caleb Mills formed one of the best tandems in the AAC. But with Mills leaving the program after four games, Grimes stepped into the spotlight, leading the Cougars with 18 points per game.

He’s most dangerous from the perimeter, shooting 41.2% from three-point range. But Grimes is also capable of scoring in other ways and is one of Houston’s best rebounders, averaging 5.8 boards per game, helping the Cougars score second-chance points.

He’s continued that strong play during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 18 points per game over four tournament games.

Complementary Pieces

Even with Mills leaving, the Cougars managed to put together a strong backcourt behind Grimes.

Marcus Sasser has turned into a suitable wingman, averaging 13.5 points per game this season. Despite some poor performances late in the season, Sasser re-emerged as a key to the Cougars with a 20-point performance against Oregon State. 

Rounding out the three-man backcourt is point guard DeJon Jarreau. While he’s known best for his defensive prowess, Jarreau averages 10.8 points and 4.4 assists per game. He contributes to the scoring and also helps to keep the offense flowing. After suffering a hip injury against Cleveland State, there were serious concerns about Jarreau’s health. But he’s played at least 32 minutes in each subsequent game and doesn’t appear to be bothered by the injury.

The Cougars also have several useful role players who have contributed all season. Justin Gorham is the team’s best rebounder at 8.7 boards per game, as well as a capable scorer. Freshman Tramon Mark provides backcourt depth and another tough defender. Finally, senior forward Fabian White has made some big plays for the Cougars during their tournament run, even if his numbers don’t stand out. 

Biggest Weakness

The Cougars have made it this far in large part because of their aggressive approach. But that aggressiveness can turn into a weakness for Houston.

The Cougars generate a lot of points off offensive rebounds, and so their offense can struggle if their opponent can control the boards. That aggressiveness can also leave them vulnerable in transition if they don’t get the rebound, even if Houston’s half-court defense is exceptional.

On the other end of the floor, Houston’s tenacious defense can sometimes leave them vulnerable to giving up offensive rebounds. The Cougars aren’t a big team, especially in the frontcourt, which is part of the reason why Grimes is such an important rebounder. When they aren’t getting steals or throwing teams off their rhythm with their suffocating defense, defensive rebounding can be an issue.

X-Factor

With three quality guards, Gorham, and to a lesser extent White, are the biggest X-factors for Houston.

Gorham grabbed 10 rebounds in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, which is a trend that has to continue. Despite being just 6-foot-7, he’s Houston’s biggest inside presence, so if he’s not rebounding, the Cougars could be in trouble.

White is in a similar boat, albeit in a slightly smaller role. He doesn’t necessarily need to score, but he can make a big difference on the boards, which is an area where the Cougars need to win. After not returning from injury until mid-February, he should be getting stronger with every game and could be at his best in the Final Four.

Worth Betting On?

With a moneyline of +500 to win the national championship, Houston isn’t worth the risk.

The Cougars will be underdogs against Baylor in the semifinals and likely underdogs against Gonzaga if they reach the final. Both are elite offensive teams that will be tough to slow down. The Cougars will have to play at a high level defensively to stay within striking distance.

Outside of Grimes, Houston isn’t particularly explosive offensively, so the Cougars will struggle to survive a high-scoring game. It’s been a great run by Kelvin Sampson’s team, but there’s a huge step up from Syracuse and Oregon State to Baylor and Gonzaga, and the Cougars aren’t a good bet to overcome both and win the national championship.

Photo: Getty Images