#6 Houston Cougars v.s. #11 San Diego State Aztecs
Thursday (3/15) 7:20p EST, TBS
The 6-11 match-up always has been an interesting matchup to watch during the first weekend of the tournament. 11-seeds are always a threat to pull off an upset in the first weekend, and for the first time, 11-seeds have won at least three of the four match-ups with 6-seeds in consecutive years. All time, 11-seeds are 55-97 (36.2%) and continue to shock people during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. We can definitely expect Houston vs. San Diego State to be a very intriguing match-up!
Houston Cougars (26-7) (14-4) – American
Houston enters the NCAA Tournament after making a run in the AAC Tournament, eventually losing to Cincinnati in the championship game. All season long though, Houston has been a very consistent team, led by veterans Rob Gray and Corey Davis Jr. Both Gray and Davis Jr. combine for an average 32.0 PPG and have led Houston back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. Since taking over as the Houston head coach back in 2014, Kelvin Sampson has turned this program around and into one of the most efficient programs in the country! He has posted an 82-47 record (64%) in his four seasons with the Cougars and finally brought them back to the NCAA Tournament with a shot to make a run!
When you watch Houston play, it is very clear to see that Rob Gray is the leader of this team. He leads the team in points, assists, and minutes. Rob Gray was named to the AAC-All Conference First Team this season and has been heating up as of late. He is averaging 23.6 PPG in Houston’s last 7 games, and put up three 30-point games over that stretch. His ability to score is something very valuable to this Houston team and if he is struggling to score, Houston’s offense is stagnant. Along with Corey Davis Jr. on the wing, Gray’s ability to draw defenders inside and kick out to Davis for a wide open three makes Houston a dangerous team in transition. Their guard play is some of the best in the country and will give a lot of teams problems if they are to move on.
X-Factor: Ability to Score in Transition and Spread the Court
Houston is not a big team at all, as their tallest player on the court is usually 6’6”. They may not be able to contest a lot of shots in the paint, but they will rip the ball out of their opponents hands and begin their quick transition offense. Houston is one of the better scoring defenses in the country, as they rank T-21 in the country for opponents PPG at an average of 64.9 PPG allowed. They also possess one of the strongest scoring margins in the country at 12.5, ranked 13th in the country. Turning the ball over against Houston can be deadly as the combo of Rob Gray and Corey Davis Jr. running in transition is extremely hard to slow down. Do not forget about Armoni Brooks as well. He won Sixth Man of the Year in the AAC this season and averages just under 10 PPG, while shooting 42.3% from long-range. If Houston is moving the ball around offensively and pushing the tempo of play offensively, they will cause a lot of problems for their opponents in this year’s tournament.
San Diego State Aztecs (22-10) (11-7) – Mountain West
After losing at Nevada on February 10, the Aztecs have not lost a game and ran the table in the MW Tournament. San Diego State rides a 9-game winning streak entering the tournament and looks like a very dangerous team. After Malik Pope was suspended due to the FBI probe, and then eventually reinstated a few games later, San Diego State looks like a completely different team on a mission. They are a very lengthy team that attacks the glass on both ends of the court and rank 39th in the country in total rebound margin at 5.3 rebounds. What makes the Aztecs very balanced is that they do not have a main scorer that must have the ball in his hands. Malik Pope is their best player, but they have four other players averaging in double-figures. San Diego State matches up very well with Houston as a result of their athletic ability from their wings. Malik Pope and Trey Kell run the floor very well for San Diego State and are major factors in the offensive game plan for the Aztecs.
Player to Watch: Trey Kell (10.4 PPG, 4.1 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.1 SPG)
Trey Kell, over the past few weeks has been fantastic for the Aztecs. Over their past 5 games, Kell is averaging 16 PPG and is shooting 48.1% from the floor. San Diego State is not one of the best offensive teams in the country when it comes to scoring, but if they are getting an extra boost from players like Kell or Devin Watson, the Aztecs can run away with a game because of their defense. The 6’4” San Diego native has not been one of the focal points for the Aztecs over the course of the season, but has turned into a valuable asset during their last few games. If he comes out hot against the Cougars, San Diego State could be on their way to a win.
X-Factor: Defend the Three-Point Line
Rebounding will not be a problem in this game for San Diego State as a result of the height difference between teams. If the Aztecs do get outrebounded, well… they will likely lose! San Diego State ranks 47th in the country for defending the 3-point line, as opponents are averaging a shooting percentage of 32.6% from deep against the Aztecs. Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks are Houston’s best three-point shooters, averaging more than 40% from deep on the season, so Malik Pope and Trey Kell must defend the corners and know where these two are on the court at all times.
Match-up to Watch: Houston’s Shooters vs. The Rim
The story of this game will be can Houston shoot and make their threes, or will San Diego State dominate the boards and score most of their points at the rim against a small Houston team. San Diego State’s ability to defend the three-point line will likely stun Houston in the first half of the game, but they must make adjustments at halftime to get these open looks from beyond the arc because Houston will not be able to outscore San Diego State in the paint. If Houston can create open shots for them over a lengthy San Diego State team, the should be well on their way to a victory.
Prediction: #6 Houston 74 #11 San Diego State 71
I do expect Rob Gray and Corey Davis Jr. to carry Houston to a victory in this one because of their jump-shots, but this could be a difficult game for Houston to start off with. San Diego State is a well balanced, defensive team with plenty of length that can give a smaller team like Houston lots of problems. San Diego State will likely dominate the boards in this game and should create a lot of second chance opportunities for them offensively. This may be the difference for San Diego State winning this game, but I would not bet against Houston because they have a chance to make a deeper run than a lot of people think in this tournament. On the other side, San Diego State also has the tools to make it to the second-weekend of the tournament, so this should be a very fun game to watch!
(Photos from Houston Chronicle)