Cougars bring eight-game win streak into Round of 32 meeting with Scarlet Knights
Friday and Saturday reminded us all how "March Madness" got its name. Sure, the 1-seeds all stayed intact, but a pair of 4-seeds and a 2-seed fell in the opening round. Houston cruised through its first test with a 31-point win over 15-seed Cleveland State while 10-seed Rutgers erased a three-point halftime deficit to win by four over 7-seed Clemson.
These two programs have squared off three times, the first in 1973 when Houston won by 11 — the closest of the three meetings. The Cougars and Scarlet Knights then met for a home-and-home in 2014, with each side coming away victorious on its home court as Houston won 77-55 on Jan. 19 before Rutgers returned the favor with a 93-70 win on Feb. 1.
Midwest Region: No. 10 Rutgers (16-11) vs. No. 2 Houston (25-3)
Time: Sunday, March 21 at 7:10 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Houston -8.5
Keys for Rutgers
Making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years, Rutgers tallied its first Tournament win since 1983 with its opening-round win over Clemson. Despite losing the turnover battle and going just 8-for-30 from 3-point range, the Scarlet Knights found a way to claw back from a narrow halftime deficit thanks to its ability to defend and hold Clemson nearly 10 points under its season average.
That toughness on defense has been a hallmark of Rutgers' play all season. Their success on that side of the ball is especially visible in the Scarlet Knights' top-five finish in a deep Big Ten in scoring defense while leading the conference with 203 total steals and 5.2 blocks per game. That defense came in handy as Rutgers likewise was held 10 points under its scoring average. Caleb McConnell, Geo Baker and Jacob Young tallied 13 points apiece to tie for the team lead in scoring while Ron Harper Jr. was the only other Scarlet Knight to finish in double figures.
Keys for Houston
Houston continued the torrid pace with which it entered the Big Dance — where it won five of its final seven pre-NCAA Tournament games by no fewer than 24 points, with the other two victories by three and two points against Memphis. Only overall tournament top seed Gonzaga (+23 points per game) entered the Tournament with a better scoring margin than Houston's plus-19.8, with the Cougars' margin bolstered by its defense that held opponents to just 37 percent shooting (best in Division I) and 57.9 points per game (second).
Houston carried that momentum into the opening round on Friday against Cleveland State, as the Vikings trailed by just eight at halftime before the Cougars pulled away thanks to 50 second-half points en route to its 87-56 win. The Cougars received quite the balanced effort on offense in the win, with six different players finishing in double figures. Quentin Grimes led the way with 18 points along with four rebounds and four assists, while Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser added 15 and 14 points apiece.
Houston brings in plenty of momentum while Rutgers entered the Big Dance 2-2 in its previous four games before its first-round upset of Clemson. The Scarlet Knights' defense once again buckled down to secure the close win while Houston likewise utilized its stingy defense in a blowout victory. The difference will likely come down to Houston’s ability to get to the basket and rebound. If the Cougars can successfully do both at a level anywhere near the rate at which they did in the regular season, they'll be able to punch the program's second Sweet 16 ticket in consecutive tournaments, achieving that feat for the first time since the early 1980s.
Prediction: Houston 75, Rutgers 64
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.