Kelvin Sampson watched his Houston team win another rout and found “two or three areas” of needed improvement. Clean those up and another number comes into focus for the Cougars: a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“If we get better in the areas we need to be good at,” Houston’s coach said, “all that stuff takes care of itself.”
Marcus Sasser and Quentin Grimes each scored 15 points and No. 8 Houston rolled to its sixth consecutive victory, 68-51 over Temple on Saturday.
The Cougars (13-1, 8-1 American Athletic Conference) also beat the Owls on Dec. 22 and completed the season sweep. Houston won its sixth game in a row by double figures and could run the table in a conference without another ranked team.
How about a top spot in March?
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“I don’t think that’s even been in my mindset,” Sampson said.
Grimes and Sasser put the idea in the forefront of any fan watching, as they hit consecutive early 3s to build a 19-point lead en route to win a hastily scheduled game because of COVID-19 issues. This game was originally scheduled for Feb. 8, but when Houston’s game with Cincinnati was postponed, Temple and Houston got bumped up to fill the CBS spot. CBS broadcast a game from the Liacouras Center for just the second time in program history — and the Owls were not ready for the spotlight.
“We played nowhere near what we are capable of playing like,” coach Aaron McKie said. “I thought we were ready to compete against these guys. You don’t have to play a perfect game … but not to be able to make shots, not to be able to make free throws, that’s a tough recipe to try and beat a top-10 team.”
The Owls, though, were just grateful to get a chance to hit the court, considering Houston played its 14th game while Temple (3-4, 2-4) played only its seventh. So it goes this season, as college basketball tries to navigate schedules upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Owls had fits of good ball movement but couldn’t finish at the rim and hit just about nothing from outside. They made just nine of 28 shots (one 3-pointer) in the first half as Houston grabbed a 36-21 lead.
“To hold a team to 21 points in their gym is not easy to do,” Sampson said.
Under Sampson, the Cougars again got solid games out of perhaps the best backcourt in the AAC in Grimes (17.8 points) and Sasser (16.5). They each hit three 3s and Grimes had nine rebounds. The Cougars, a 12-point favorite, made 9 of 20 3-pointers (45%). Their only loss of the season came when they missed 17 of 21 3s against Tulsa, and when they’re connecting from deep, they’re as tough to beat as any team.
The Cougars keep winning even as Caleb Mills, the preseason AAC player of the year, decided to enter the transfer portal earlier this month, leaving them without their leading scorer from last season. Houston reached as high as No. 5 in the AP Top 25 and remain the favorite in the AAC.
Jake Forrester led Temple with 15 points and Khalif Battle had 14. The Owls had won back-to-back games in McKie’s second season as they started to get into a rhythm following the fits and starts of postponements.
But Houston wiped out the good feelings.
Justin Gorham hit a 3 off the break for Houston, fell into his bench and was helped up by his teammates, who stood, clapped and cheered the entire game. Gorham, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds, had a rim-shaking slam off the break to make it 62-41.
“I try and be the tough guy,” Gorham said. “We play hard, defend and rebound.”
Houston: The Cougars led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and grabbed seven of them (37 overall).
Temple: The Owls have defeated a ranked team for 13 consecutive seasons. They beat No. 16 Wichita State last season, but there are no currently ranked teams left on the schedule, so that streak is in jeopardy.
“It’s the model that we’re trying to build,” McKie said. “Playing faster, playing with pace, being physical, rebounding everything. Just bringing that intimidation factor into games before you even start.”
Sampson gave an appreciative shoutout to McKie for his flexibility with the schedule. Sampson said he spent many hours before tipoff trying to piece together a schedule that needs new dates for postponements, leaving it uncertain if AAC teams can play 20 conference games.
“It’s going to require sacrifice,” Sampson said. “You have to help someone. I don’t mind doing it as long as it doesn’t put us in a tough spot. My first responsibility is to look after my program.”
Houston plays Thursday at Tulane.
The Owls host Tulsa on Tuesday.