Third-ranked Houston went to the Final Four two seasons ago and the Elite Eight last season and unveils perhaps the best team of the bunch when the season tips off Monday.
That sentiment is common largely because star guard Marcus Sasser is back from foot surgery and the Cougars team him with ballyhooed recruit Jarace Walker.
Houston tackles that lofty billing when it opens the season against visiting Northern Colorado.
The No. 3 preseason ranking is Houston’s highest since it was ranked third in the polls before the 1983-84 campaign. That Cougars’ team was led by legendary Hakeem Olajuwon and eventually lost to Georgetown in the national title game.
Sasser sustained a season-ending left foot injury 12 games into season but is fully recovered. Guard Tramon Mack (shoulder) also returns. He played in just seven games in 2021.
Walker, a five-star forward recruit, figures to make an immediate impact as part of a freshman group that includes two four-star recruits in guards Emmanuel Sharp and Terrance Arceneaux.
Sasser has been keeping close tabs on the freshmen as he knows their developments will be a key to Houston’s season.
“Every day we’re trying to push them to get used to the culture,” Sasser said. “So when we go out there as a group together, and they’re playing with the veterans, you know they’re playing on the same level as us.”
Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson expects growing pains before the trio starts making key contributions for a program that went 32-6 last season.
“We’ve got a lot of winners on this team, but you’ve just got to wait for the freshmen to catch up,” Sampson said. “I don’t care how good the freshmen are, they get their doors blown out for two or three weeks. You just have to stay patient, keep working at it and eventually they’re going to have their ‘Aha’ moment.”
Sasser averaged 17.7 points before his injury. He was named American Athletic Conference Preseason Player of the Year.
Walker, the fifth McDonald’s All-American in Houston history, was named AAC Preseason Rookie of the Year. He also was listed as the top high school power forward recruit last season by multiple entities.
Holdover guard Jamal Shead (10.0 ppg) also is back, while Sharp and Arceneaux are expected to carve out pivotal roles.
Northern Colorado went 22-16 last season and returns a high-octane backcourt in Daylen Kountz and Matt Johnson II. Kountz led the Big Sky in scoring at 21.2 points per game. He made 59 3-pointers and connected at a 42.1 percent clip.
Kountz scored 20 or more points on 24 occasions, including four outings in which he tallied at least 30.
Kountz played sparingly in two seasons at Colorado before transferring to Northern Colorado. He has an 18.6 scoring average in two seasons with the Bears and carries a chip on his shoulder when discussing his goals.
“Just to continue to prove people wrong,” Kountz told Underdog in a YouTube interview. “A lot of people didn’t expect me to be in the situation I’m in or even make it this far.”
Johnson is a stellar 3-pointer marksman himself, sinking 82 while making 42.5 percent of his attempts. Johnson averaged 13.4 points and 3.7 assists.
Guard Dalton Knecht could step up after averaging 8.9 points and making 48 treys last season.
–Field Level Media