On Friday, March 11th, the Houston Cougars will begin their run in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. With a 22-8 record, and going 12-6 in conference play, they earned a first round bye and the second seed. Their first opponent will be the Tulane Green Wave, who upset the UCF Knights on Thursday night, 65-63, to reach the quarterfinal. A ten seed going into the tournament, with a record of 10-21 and 3-15 in conference, they will be fired up to have merely won a game. The game will be televised on ESPNU and begin at 6:00PM.
These two teams have met twice this season and Houston got the series sweep. Both were double digit wins. The Green Wave, however, showed flashes of positivity against the Cougars, but could never sustain enough momentum to secure any wins.
Houston and Tulane have ended their seasons on divergent trajectories. The Cougars have won nine of their last eleven, while the Green Wave just broke a five game losing streak to close the season and only got three conference wins. Their first round victory against UCF, though, could give them some confidence going forward.
They were not expected to beat UCF, as they were the lowest seeded team in the tournament. This upset, if it doesn’t give them momentum, has at least loosened up the players, who will be primed and ready to take on the Cougars. And while their record does not impress, the Ed Conroy coached team does have some talent in its ranks. Senior guard Louis Dabney is averaging 14.6 points per game and put up 23 in his second meeting with Houston. This capable offensive threat will be helped by Malik Morgan, who is averaging 12.7 points per game. But they’ll also need sophomore forward Dylan Osetkowski, who averages double digit scoring and leads the team in rebounds, with 8.6 per game, to get within striking distance of winning this game.
The Cougars come into this quarterfinal matchup playing the best basketball of the Kelvin Sampson era. Their final two games of the season saw them defeating UConn in Storrs and Cincinnati at home, two teams many believe will be in the NCAA Tournament. They have achieved their impressive late season streak through strong, consistent play from Devonta Pollard and Damyean Dotson.
These two have hit their stride in conference play, especially after the leading scorer Rob Gray Jr. suffered an ankle injury and subsequently missed four games. The Cougars went 3-1 in his absence with Dotson and Pollard stepping up. But even since Gray’s return, they have maintained their high level of play. This has created a more dynamic offense for the Cougars, which has accounted for their late season surge.
While the Cougars are expected to win this game, they could overlook their 10th seed opponent. The Green Wave have already won a game in this tournament and would love to play spoiler for Kelvin’s Sampson’s team. Heck, they’d love to win the whole thing. Houston needs to play very well in this tournament if they want a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Some consider them a bubble team capable of winning an at large bid to the big dance if they get to the final of the AAC Tournament. But this may be wishful thinking, and in all likelihood, they will have to win the entire thing, earning the automatic bid, to get a chance to play in the highest stage of college basketball.
Talented teams lie ahead if the Cougars reach the semifinals and finals. But, first, they will have to beat a hungry underdog in Tulane. Hopefully, the Cougars won’t overlook the squad from New Orleans. If they don’t, they have a fairly good chance at getting deep into this tournament and, perhaps, winning it. They have defeated every team in the conference at least once. But it won’t be easy. And it starts against the Green Wave.