Houston’s first game as the No. 1 team in the nation in nearly 39 years was a rousing success.
The Cougars look to follow up the convincing 100-52 victory over Norfolk State with another strong effort when they face Saint Mary’s on Saturday night in the Battleground 2K22 at Fort Worth, Texas.
The last time Houston was the No. 1 team in the land, big-time stars Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were on the roster.
And despite the ease of Wednesday’s victory over Norfolk State, the Cougars (7-0) are aware the No. 1 ranking could disappear with one slip-up or substandard effort.
“We can lose it at any time,” Houston guard Jamal Shead said after the home win. “Hopefully we keep it, but we could lose it tomorrow, the next day, the day after that. We don’t even have to lose to lose it. It could go at any time.”
Saint Mary’s (6-2) is certainly a threat despite losing its past two games to Washington and New Mexico.
The Gaels are 2-12 all-time against No. 1 teams with both wins coming against Gonzaga — the memorable upset of the Bulldogs in the 2019 West Coast Conference title game and another major stunner last season.
However, the Cougars have been steamrolling foes with five wins by more than 25 points. Only games at Oregon (66-56) and home against Kent State (49-44) have been decided by 10 or fewer points.
Houston also hopes star guard Marcus Sasser (team-best 18.1 points per game) has sorted out his shooting issues.
Sasser scored a season-high 25 points and made 7 of 12 3-point attempts against Norfolk State. He was 7 of 37 from behind the arc over the previous five contests, including making 1 of 10 three nights earlier against Kent State.
“He just needed to see one go in,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “Once he saw one go in, he saw another go in, and I said, ‘They’re in trouble.’ His shot selection was unbelievable.”
The stellar performance was Sasser’s third 20-point outing of the season.
Tramon Mark (10.6) and Jarace Walker (10.3) also are scoring in double digits with J’Wan Roberts (9.7) just off the pace. Walker averages a team-leading 7.0 rebounds and Roberts is chipping in 6.9 per game.
The Cougars are allowing just 48 points per game, the top figure in the nation entering Thursday’s play. Houston also leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense (30 percent) and 3-point percentage defense (18.5).
Saint Mary’s allows just 57.5 points per game (21st nationally) and hasn’t allowed more than 70 points — it gave up exactly 70 in its opener against Oral Roberts.
Alex Ducas and Mitchell Saxen share the team scoring leadership at 14.5 points per game. Saxen also leads the Gaels in rebounding (8.9).
Ducas tied his career best with 25 points in Wednesday’s 69-65 loss to New Mexico. The setback ended Saint Mary’s 23-game home victory streak.
Gaels coach Randy Bennett was targeting foes like the Cougars to beef up the schedule per the school’s NCAA Tournament resume.
Of course, he didn’t know Houston would be No. 1 in early December. The Cougars fit the scheduling blueprint.
“We kind of came up with a strategic plan of what we need to do nonconference and that’s also contingent on how many teams in the (WCC) we think will be (good),” Bennett said recently.
This will be the fourth meeting between the two schools. Houston holds a 2-1 edge but Saint Mary’s won the most recent meeting, 72-65 on Dec. 13, 1996.
–Field Level Media