American Athletic Conference implications shape Wednesday's matchup between Tulsa and host No. 22-ranked Houston.
Houston (20-6, 10-3 AAC) fell into a tie with Cincinnati atop the league after the Cougars' 73-72 overtime loss Saturday at SMU. The loss, which snapped a three-game winning streak, was just their second defeat in 10 games.
The Cougars began that winning stretch after a 63-61 loss at Tulsa (17-8, 9-3) on Jan. 11. The Golden Hurricane are tied with Houston and Cincinnati atop the loss column, and a win on Wednesday seals a crucial season sweep in their pursuit of a conference championship.
Tulsa dropped back-to-back games on Feb. 6 and Feb. 9 to Connecticut and at UCF, after scoring a marquee win Feb. 1 against Wichita State.
The Golden Hurricane recovered last week with back-to-back wins over East Carolina and South Florida.
"Our defense in the first half was terrific. We knew it would be this type of game where we had to grind it out," Tulsa coach Frank Haith said in his postgame press conference following the 56-48 win at South Florida on Feb. 15.
Tulsa comes into Wednesday's road matchup ranked No. 53 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. The Golden Hurricane rank 16th nationally defending the 3-pointer, holding opponents to just 29.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Its defense of the 3-pointer proved vital in the Jan. 11 win over Houston, as Tulsa limited the Cougars to just 2-of-12 from deep in the second half.
Long-range shooting plays less of a role in Houston's No. 24-ranked adjusted efficiency offense than glass work and balance, however. The Cougars average an offensive rebound on 38.9 percent of their missed shots, second-best in college basketball.
Chris Harris Jr. (2.7), Nate Hinton (2.6), Fabian White Jr. (2.2) and Brison Gresham (2.0) all average two or more offensive rebounds per game. Hinton is averaging nine rebounds per game in total, and is one of three Cougars to average in double-figures scoring.
Caleb Mills is leading the way with 12.4 points per game, primarily coming off the bench. Quentin Grimes is next at 12.3 points per game. Marcus Sasser, who is averaging 7.7 points per game, poured in 26 points in the loss at SMU.
The emphasis on the reserve Sasser followed in line with the approach coach Kelvin Sampson said was Houston's offensive strategy following a 62-58 win at South Florida on Feb. 12: Feeding the ball to "who's going good and let them have it."
Sasser's eruption at SMU was a highlight on an otherwise sluggish offensive game. Houston shot just 39.7 percent from the floor as a team.
"It is a simple game," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said in his postgame press conference. "When you make shots, your offense is great."
The 73 points Houston allowed were the most since Temple scored 74 against the Cougars on Jan. 7. Houston has limited its opponents to just 48.3 percent shooting inside the 3-point arc, and 29.7 percent beyond it.
Harris' shot-blocking presence on the interior has been central to Houston's defense. He comes into Wednesday's contest averaging 2.1 blocks per game.
--Field Level Media