Fresh off making its first Final Four appearance since 1984, Houston seeks to prove it can make a similar run again when the Cougars face UAB in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Houston (29-5) captured the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles and was a fixture in the AP Top 25 poll throughout the season. The Cougars got to where they are with stingy defense. They rank first in Division I in field goal defense, holding their opponents to just 37.3 percent shooting from the field, and sllowed 58.9 points per game. Houston did not lose to any teams ranked outside the top 50 in the NET.
UAB (27-7) has the look and feel of a classic plucky underdog who can bust a few brackets. The Blazers enter the NCAA Tournament on a tear, winning their last seven games. Six of those victories came on the road. UAB earned its first NCAA bid since 2015 by pushing the pace on offense, averaging 70.6 possessions per 40 minutes. The Blazers can score from anywhere on the floor in bunches. They averaged 80.7 points per game during the regular season.
The former Conference USA rivals are meeting for the first time since 2013. Houston won the most recent matchup 66-61, snapping a three-game skid to UAB.
South Region: No. 12 UAB Blazers (27-7) vs. No. 5 Houston Cougars (29-5)
Time: Friday, March 18 at 9:20 p.m. ET
Where: PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh)
Spread: Houston -8.5
Keys for UAB
Piling up possessions will be absolutely critical for the Blazers. Houston has struggled against teams who play a quicker tempo. Running and gunning will help UAB generate better looks. If possessions get bogged down and go deep into the shot clock, UAB will play right into Houston's strengths and allow the Cougars to impose their will on defense. Jordan Walker will be key to firing up the offense early. Walker leads the Blazers with 20.4 points per game and ranks second among Division I players with 115 made 3-pointers.
Winning the rebound battle or at least staying even is absolutely critical to UAB's upset hopes. Houston is excellent at crashing the boards and getting second-chance baskets. Denying the Cougars more than one shot will obviously make it easier to push the ball and create quality looks in transition. Still, it won't be an easy task to accomplish. Houston has five different players who corral more than 4.5 rebounds per game. Josh Carlton leads the way with 6.4 boards per contest. Kyler Edwards averages 6.0 rebounds.
Keys for Houston
A balanced offense has served the Cougars well throughout the season. Houston has four players who average at least 10 points per game, led by Edwards with 13.6. Fabian White and Carlton give the Cougars a nice inside punch, combining for 25 points and 12 rebounds per game. Houston is efficient around the basket and tenacious on the boards. The Cougars need to pressure the rim and prevent Trey Jemison, UAB's 7-foot center, from dominating in the paint.
Hitting free throws will be essential for Houston. That's easier said than done. The Cougars have struggled from the free-throw line all season, connecting on just 66.9 percent of their attempts. Such inefficiency won't cut it against the Blazers. UAB has the ability to hang with Houston for 40 minutes. If the game comes down to one or two late possessions, multiple missed free throws may come back to haunt the Cougars.
Houston is quickly turning into a basketball power. The Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2019 NCAA Tournament and the Final Four in 2021. This is a team that knows how to win in March. But it may be much tougher this time around. UAB is a team that fits the profile of a giant killer. The Blazers won't be intimidated by facing a former conference rival and are good enough at pushing the tempo to challenge Houston for 40 minutes. This one will go down to the wire and the Cougars' struggles with making free throws will open the door for another classic 12-over-5 upset to happen.
Prediction: UAB 73, Houston 70
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.