One potential flaw for Houston as it prepares for one of its biggest tests in the American Athletic Conference could be its bench.
The No. 6 Cougars (17-2, 11-2 AAC), who travel to Wichita State (12-4, 8-2) on Thursday, are coming off a performance in which coach Kelvin Sampson reinserted his starters after sensing a victory against South Florida was in the balance.
“We need those guys off the bench. We do get tired,” DeJon Jarreau said after Houston mounted a 27-point lead, only to watch reserves let the margin diminish. “The second unit, we need them to come in and play like how they know how to play.”
As it is, the Cougars remain the predominant AAC squad, though the Shockers can actually gain the conference lead since the teams are tied in the loss column. Houston downed Wichita State 70-63 on Jan. 6.
COVID-19 circumstances forced the postponement of the Cougars’ last two games, though the layoff since the South Florida victory only amounts to eight days.
If backups develop confidence, it could not only key Houston’s stretch run but also its postseason hopes after being slotted as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA’s preliminary bracket reveal on Saturday.
“That’s why we still have a high ceiling,” said Jarreau, “because I feel like once everything comes together, and it is coming, I feel like it is going to be hard to beat us.”
Jarreau is the Cougars’ top distributor, averaging 4.3 assists. Quentin Grimes, who is in his second season with Houston after transferring from Kansas, carries a team-high 16.9-point average and is coming off a 29-point performance against South Florida.
“When he gets going, there is no telling when he is going to miss,” Jarreau said. “He already has a pretty shot. Every time he elevates, he can elevate over people, but when he gets going, it’s over with. I just feel like he is on flames.”
Wichita State will also return from an eight-day break. A game Sunday against SMU was postponed, resulting in two games in four days against the Mustangs next week.
Upsetting the AAC’s only ranked team, however, is the Shockers’ top priority. They carry a four-game win streak into the matchup and have won nine straight home games against AAC rivals.
“Picked seventh in the league, I think the guys took that in a way that we’re going to show everyone that we’re better than that,” said interim coach Isaac Brown. “I think having nobody on the preseason all-conference list, that stuff motivates those kids. It gets them to play harder. It gets them to buy in and it gets them to want to prove the point to everybody.”
Houston’s rebounding margin of plus-10 presents a significant concern for Wichita State, which led the Cougars by 10 in the first meeting before succumbing to a 16-0 second-half run.
The Shockers’ leading scorer, Tyson Etienne, averages 17.3 points as a 39.8 percent shooter from 3-point range. Dexter Dennis, one of the AAC’s top defenders, will likely draw Grimes.
–Field Level Media