No. 1 Houston will have questions aplenty when it battles ninth-seeded Auburn in a Round of 32 game in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Birmingham, Ala.
First and foremost for Houston (32-3) will be the health of All-American guard Marcus Sasser, who scored just five points before aggravating a groin injury in the Cougars’ tougher-than-expected, 63-52 win over 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky on Thursday. Houston’s chief facilitator Jamal Shead also struggled with a sore knee in the victory.
Both players began Friday’s press conference by telling reporters they were “100 percent” going to play Saturday. That doesn’t mean they are 100 percent healthy.
“It’s always going to be a concern when you know you can reaggravate or reinjure, but, you know, it’s win or go home,” Sasser said. “Tomorrow is not promised. The next game is not promised.”
Sasser said he planted too hard during a jump shot to reinjure the groin.
“I was good throughout the whole game until that moment,” Sasser said. “So really just got to try to go out there and, like I said, not think about it. Go into the game with the same mindset like nothing is wrong and just have that mindset that I’ve been having the whole season really.”
Houston will have to play a whole lot better than it did in the opening round to have a chance against Auburn. Jarace Walker led the Cougars with 16 points against Northern Kentucky while Shead has 13, and J’Wan Roberts added 11 points and 12 rebounds.
“I’m playing (Saturday),” Shead made clear after Thursday’s game. “Everybody has bumps and bruises during this time of year.”
The Cougars are always in games because of their defense. Houston limited Northern Kentucky to 27.5 percent shooting in Thursday’s win and forged a nine-rebound advantage on the boards.
The Cougars, who have won 14 of their past 15 games, have now won their opening round game in the Big Dance five straight times.
Auburn (21-12) advanced to the Round of 32 with an 83-75 win over eighth-seeded Iowa on Thursday as Johni Broome racked up 19 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. The Tigers have now won their opening-round game in the NCAA Tournament for 11 straight appearances.
Wendell Green Jr. added 15 points for the Tigers, with Tre Donaldson, K.D. Johnson and Jaylin Williams contributing 11 apiece and Allen Flanigan had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Tigers have won just twice in their last five games, but if Auburn beats Houston, it will earn a berth in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019 when it went all the way to the Final Four.
“We’ve played a really tough schedule and we’ve lost to a lot of teams that were favored and teams that were better than us,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “But to give our guys confidence I had to remind them we played Alabama for 85 minutes and we led for 67 of those minutes, both at home and Tuscaloosa. We beat Tennessee and lost by three at Tennessee. Even though we’ve lost some games, I was proud of our guys for competing. So I want to make sure our guys know they are good enough.”
Donaldson said after Thursday’s win that the Tigers’ confidence is “through the roof.”
“This (win) is what we needed,” he said. “We’re back to playing Auburn basketball. It’s going to be hard to beat us.”
Houston has a 6-1 all-time edge in games against Auburn, including wins in the past five meetings.