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March Madness rolls on Friday night with the first Sweet 16 matchup in the Midwest Region between the no. 1 seed Houston Cougars and the no. 5 seed Miami Hurricanes. Houston was one of two no. 1 seeds to survive the opening weekend, making them an obvious favorite to win the national championship among the 16 teams left. However, Miami won the ACC regular-season title and figures to be a serious contender, especially with so much experience back from last year’s run to the Elite Eight.
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The Hurricanes might have been one of the more overlooked no. 5 seeds in this year’s tournament field. As mentioned, they won the ACC regular-season title and eventually reached the ACC Tournament finals. Miami won nine of its last 11 games heading into the NCAA Tournament, bringing a lot of momentum to the Big Dance. They also find themselves back in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season, hoping to reach the Elite Eight for the second straight season.
The Hurricanes feature four players who average at least 13 points per game with Isaiah Wong leading the pack. He’s the straw that stirs the drink for Miami, averaging 16.1 points and 3.3 assists per game while also being the player the Hurricanes turn to for big plays late in games. He’s complemented by Jordan Miller, a fifth-year player and a bigger guard who averages 15.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Meanwhile, Miami’s best outside shooter is sophomore Nijel Pack, who averages 13.4 points per game while shooting 39% from the perimeter. Finally, the Hurricanes have a strong inside presence with Norchad Omier. The 6’7’' sophomore averages a double-double with 13.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while also averaging 1.2 blocks per game.
Miami was a trendy pick to lose to no. 12 Drake in the First Round. It looked like that might happen with the Hurricanes trailing by eight points with less than six minutes left. But in the final five and a half minutes, Miami outscored Drake 16-1 to avoid an upset. They followed that up with a convincing performance against Indiana in the Round of 32. The ‘Canes led for much of the first half and then let their lead slip away. However, they were once again dominant down the stretch. The game was tied 49-49 with 13 minutes left, but Miami outscored Indiana 36-20 the rest of the way to secure a comfortable 85-69 win.
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The Cougars have been one of the top teams in the country all season and head into the Sweet 16 as one of the leading national title contenders. There was some concern with Houston after Marcus Sasser got hurt during the AAC Tournament. However, he appears to have healed and should be close to 100% for Sweet 16. That should put the Cougars in a good position to get to the Final Four for the second time in three seasons. After all, Houston is 33-3 on the season and has lost just once in the last 16 games.
Sasser is undoubtedly Houston’s most important player. The Cougars fell apart in the AAC Tournament final when they didn’t have him, needing a half to adjust to playing without him. But when he’s healthy, Sasser is one of the best players in the country, averaging 16.9 points and 3.1 assists per game. Houston’s backcourt also features Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark, who average 10.4 and 10 points per game, respectively. Shead also runs the Houston offense, averaging a team-high 5.4 assists per game.
The Cougars also have good size and athleticism in the frontcourt with Jarace Walker and J’Wan Roberts. Walker is the team’s second-leading scorer with 11.1 points per game and can score at all three levels on top of averaging 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Roberts is more of a traditional interior player, averaging 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game to control the paint for the Cougars.
With Sasser limited to just five points in 14 minutes of action, the Cougars struggled to put away Northern Kentucky in the First Round. The Cougars only led by three at halftime, which was also their lead with under 12 minutes left. But in the end, Houston pulled away late to win 63-52. In the Round of 32, the Cougars found themselves down 10 at halftime against Auburn. However, the Cougars followed up one of their worst halves of the season with one of their best. Houston mounted an impressive comeback in the second half, outscoring Auburn 50-23 over the final 20 minutes to win 81-64 behind 22 points from Sasser and a game-high 26 points from Mark.
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Houston ATS Record: 19-17
Miami ATS Record: 20-14
138 (Over -110; Under -110)
138 (Over -110; Under -110)
The Hurricanes definitely have the pieces to challenge Houston and pull off the upset. Wong is a great leader who is a proven player in the clutch. But Miami is far from a one-man team. They can score inside and outside and aren’t afraid to play at a high tempo. In fact, Miami ranks 11th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, so they can put the ball in the basket, averaging 79.1 points per game on the season.
However, with Sasser appearing to be close to full health during the Round of 32, the Cougars are not going to be easy to beat. Houston only lost two games this season when Sasser was at full health and have a dynamic team at both ends of the floor. In fact, the Cougars rank ninth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Not only do they have the dynamic scorers to average close to 75 points per game but Houston has also held opponents to just 56.6 points per game this season.
The scary thing about Houston is that the Cougars are capable of taking things into another gear that most other teams don’t have. The few times this year that their backs have been against the wall have been the games when the Cougars have played their best. They showed that during their win over Auburn and are capable of doing the same against Miami, especially since they are at full strength. Even if the Hurricanes challenge the Cougars, look for Houston to eventually pull away late in the game and cover the seven-point spread.
It’s not been a particularly good NCAA Tournament for the AAC or the ACC. The AAC only sent two teams to the Big Dance with Houston being the only survive. Likewise, a down year for the ACC saw only five teams invited with Miami the only ACC team that survived to see the second weekend of the tournament.
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