On Tuesday night, Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars, who now rank as the nation’s top team in the latest AP Poll, look to bounce-back from Saturday’s weak performance versus Kent State on their home floor at Fertitta Center. After an extremely close matchup that resulted in just a 5-point victory, Houston will be looking to make a statement in its first game as the #1 team in college basketball.
Norfolk State enters this contest with a 5-2 overall record, and after a 50-point victory over a Division-III foe last week, the Spartans travel to Houston to play the nation’s best.
#1 Houston Cougars At a Glance
From top to bottom, it’s tough to deny that the Houston Cougars are the most well-rounded team in all of college basketball, and it’s certainly reflected by the program’s #1 spot in the latest AP Poll. This should come as no surprise considering Houston has brought back a number of key players who helped this Cougars team make the Elite Eight this past season, and its first Final Four appearance since 1984 just two seasons ago. Of all the core players who have returned for Houston this season, the most significant is surely Senior Guard Marcus Sasser.
The Return of Marcus Sasser & Tramon Mark
After dealing with a number of injuries in his Junior season with the Cougars, most notably a broken foot that kept him out of 20 games last year, Sasser has returned with a vengeance. The 6-foot-2 guard is an exceptional pull-up shooter, having knocked down over 35% of his Field Goal Attempts from beyond-the-arc throughout his first three seasons at Houston. While Sasser has been pretty inconsistent shooting the basketball this season, he still leads the team in scoring averaging over 17 PPG over his first six contests.
On top of his second-nature scoring ability, Sasser is also a tremendous passer and is averaging over 4 APG thus far. Sampson looks to be very pleased with the production of his star guard, who has shown very minimal hiccups in through his recovery from his prior injuries last season. Sasser is incredibly gifted on the defensive-end, and many consider him to be one of, if not the best two-way guard in all of college basketball.
Sasser was chosen as a pre-season First Team All-American heading into the 2022-23 season, and if Houston is to make another run at a National Championship come March, it will surely be on the back of its best, and most versatile player.
In addition to Sasser, Houston has also returned another notable member of its backcourt- Tramon Mark, who was also struck with the injury bug last season. Like Sasser, Mark looks to be recovering extremely well from last season’s injury, and has averaged over 11 PPG and 4 APG over Houston’s first six games.
Cougars’ Front Court & Defensive Efficiency
In its front court, Houston features its 6-foot-8 240-pound forward, Jarace Walker who is averaging over 13 PPG and 7 RPG throughout the first six games of his college career. Entering the season, Walker was a 5-star player, ranking as the number 10 recruit in the country out of the highly-touted IMG Academy. Walker is the highest-ranked recruit in the history of Houston’s program, and it's pretty evident that Sampson is putting the pieces together, and preparing for another shot at a national championship this year.
While Jarace is an elite playmaker with the ball in his hands, he may be even better on the defensive side as a rim-protector. Houston’s star freshman forward is renowned for his shot-blocking ability, and has made a considerable impact thus far as an offensive, and defensive rebounder.
Alongside Walker, the Cougars have also returned another immensely talented defensive presence in junior forward J’Wan Roberts. While Roberts certainly does his part in contributing to Houston’s offensive production, his impact on Houston’s defensive efficiency is what deserves the most praise. Between Walker and Roberts, it is very difficult for any offense to make any impact from getting the ball inside and scoring in the paint. The Cougars’ front court is a “No-Man Zone” of which has resulted in offenses forcing more difficult jump shots as a result.
Last season, Houston ranked third in the nation in defensive efficiency trailing just San Diego State and Texas Tech. Over the first six games of the 2022-23 season, Houston is once again atop the country in that metric, and with the addition of a five-star recruit in Walker, I fully expect the Cougars to finish the season with the best defense in all of college basketball.
Team Profile: Norfolk State Spartans
While three of Norfolk State’s five victories have come against teams who are not Division-I programs, it's tough to say Head Coach Robert Jones’ Spartans have yet to be tested considering both of its two losses thus far have come against top-10 programs in the Baylor Bears, and UCLA Bruins.
The Spartans are led by fifth-year senior guard, and lifelong Norfolk resident- Joe Bryant Jr. Bryant is off to a hot start for Norfolk State, leading the team in scoring over 14 PPG, on top of 4 rebounds and 3 assists. In the Spartans’ matchup with an extremely talented Baylor team led by Scott Drew, Bryant was the top-scorer in the contest with 24 points.
Alongside Bryant Jr, Norfolk State also has another very experienced player featured in its front court in 6-9 forward Kris Bankston. Bankston is off to a great start this season leading the Spartans in rebounding at nearly 8 per contest, in addition to putting up 13.2 PPG.
Norfolk State is 1-3 ATS on the season considering two of its victories came against teams who are not Division-I programs. That said, the Spartans played very well in both of its ranked matchups versus UCLA, and even more so against Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears.
While the Spartans were very well prepared prior to its matchup with the nation’s second-ranked team (at the time), Houston should present far more matchup issues than Baylor did. Sampson’s Cougars are the best defensive team in the country and while Norfolk State did find plenty of great shooting opportunities versus the Bears, the Cougars backcourt is ruthless in its high-pressure defense that forces its opponents to commit a substantial number of turnovers.
Houston is 5-1 ATS on the season, with its most recent matchup with Kent State having been the only game the Cougars have not covered in. After a relatively concerning performance on Saturday, I expect Sampson to increase the pressure defensively which should make it extremely difficult for Norfolk to find high quality scoring opportunities. After a lackluster offensive performance versus the Golden Flashes, I expect the Cougars to come out with a chip on its shoulder in the team’s first game atop the AP Poll.
In my opinion, Houston is the most well-rounded team in all of college basketball, which is why I placed a preseason futures wager on the Cougars to cut down the nets at +1200. I fully expect this to be another blowout performance right from the tip to the final whistle. In a number of its games thus far, Sampson’s bunch have jumped out to an early double-digit point lead, and just had never looked back. The story should be the same in this Tuesday night matchup, and for that reason I played my Houston Cougars to cover both its 1H (-14), and full-game (-25) numbers at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Wagers ⇒ Houston -25 (2u)
Houston 1H -14 (2u)