Northern Kentucky takes shot at upsetting No. 1 Houston

Mar 12, 2023; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Houston Cougars guard Tramon Mark (12) defends against the Memphis Tigers in bound pass during the second half at Dickies Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Looking for an excuse to believe Northern Kentucky can become the second No. 16 seed to shock a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s first round? Here you go:

Cincinnati served as one of the two common opponents between Northern Kentucky (22-12) and top-ranked Houston (31-3) during the regular season. The Cougars defeated the Bearcats three times by an average of 13.3 points per game – while the Norse knocked off the Bearcats by 13 on Nov. 16.

There you have it: Proof that Houston and Northern Kentucky will be pretty much equals when they meet Thursday night in Midwest Regional first-round action in Birmingham, Ala.

Of course, once you parse their other common opponent (Kent State, which Houston beat by five points and Northern Kentucky lost to by 22) as well as the rest of their schedules, it’s clear the Cougars boast a far superior resume than the Horizon League tournament champs.

But anything can happen in one two-hour stretch, right?

“They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason,” Northern Kentucky coach Darrin Horn told reporters Sunday. “There’s no pressure on us. Stay in the moment. It helps you play in the moment.”

But Houston isn’t your typical top seed. This marks the school’s first No. 1 seed since 1983 — when Hakeem (then known as Akeem) Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest of the top-ranked Cougars lost to North Carolina State in perhaps the most fabled national championship game in NCAA history.

“We’re honored to be a 1 seed, but our kids have earned the right to be a 1 seed,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters. “Happy for our program, but more importantly, I’m happy for our kids who did all the work.”

Houston is used to making deep runs. The Cougars advanced to the Final Four two seasons ago and the Elite Eight last year.

No team in the tournament is as renowned for its work ethic as Houston. The Cougars are ferocious defenders. They rank fourth according to KenPom in defensive efficiency (89.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) and first in blocked shot percentage (they reject one out of every six opponents’ attempts).

Houston attacks with the same tenacity when shooting the ball. The Cougars rebound 37.1 percent of their own misses — the fourth-best showing in the country.

One potential issue? Leading scorer and perimeter defender Marcus Sasser (17.1 points per game) sat out Sunday’s loss to Memphis due to a strained groin, though he told reporters Sunday he envisions playing against Northern Kentucky.

If Sasser plays, surely he’ll get his chances to defend Northern Kentucky junior guard Marques Warrick. The 6-foot-2 son of Syracuse immortal Hakim Warrick averages a team-high 19.1 points and owns 86 3-pointers.

Overall, the Norse could be viewed as a low-major version of the Cougars. They rank fourth nationally in steals (14.1 percent of possessions), which is nine spots ahead of Houston.

The Norse also prefer an ultra-patient offensive style. They rank 358th out of the nation’s 363 Division I teams in KenPom’s Adjusted Tempo statistic with just 62 possessions per game. Houston, meanwhile, ranks 343rd with 63.3 possessions per game.

–Field Level Media

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