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Midwest Region preview: Top seed Houston battling adversity

Top seed Houston working through injuries, emotions

It’s easy to point to reasons why top-ranked Houston was upset by Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

The more difficult question is whether the Cougars’ outlook will improve by the time the NCAA Tournament begins.

Coach Kelvin Sampson was already dealing with adversity off the court, as he learned Friday morning that his twin sister, Karen, had died.

As the team was still processing the tragedy, star player Marcus Sasser suffered a groin injury Saturday. He missed the rest of the game and sat out the championship game loss to Memphis.

The result was meaningless, but how the team deals with these two very different situations will be telling.

Sampson’s squad has all the boxes checked on the court, and emotions can work in different ways. This team is more than capable of channeling its feelings in a positive direction and winning the whole thing for Sampson and his family.

But that will be a very difficult task should Sasser be limited or miss any time.

All indications are that he should be good to go. He will need to be for Houston to fulfill its potential.

If he’s not, this bracket becomes even more wide open.

Four players to watch

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana: The left-handed forward uses his exceptional athletic ability to play above the rim, but he has also added some finesse to his impressive repertoire of dunks and blocked shots. Jackson-Davis has a solid post game and has really developed as a passer, which is why he is a Wooden Award finalist.

Kris Murray, Iowa: Wait, didn’t Iowa lose Murray to the NBA, where he is a standout for the first-place Sacramento Kings? Well, yes. Kind of. While twin brother Keegan was the No. 4 overall selection of the Kings out of Iowa last season, Kris has taken the baton with the Hawkeyes and run with it. He can score inside and out, making him the most dangerous weapon on an elite offense.

Tucker DeVries, Drake: Maybe the only thing more impressive than his ability to make shots is his hair. DeVries, the son of Drake coach Darian DeVries, doesn’t need much space to get the ball up toward the rim, and the amount of attention he commands opens things up for some capable teammates.

Sincere Carry, Kent State: The Duquesne transfer adds a legitimate scoring threat to a defensively sound team that has won 10 of its last 11 games and played Houston and Gonzaga down to the wire in nonconference play. He’s also confident. Of the Golden Flashes’ berth, Carry said: “I want to make some noise. I’m not just going there to experience the moment. I’m trying to win.”

Three potential matchups

Texas vs. Texas A&M, second round: These storied rivals used to meet far more often when they were in the same conference. The Lone Star Showdown has happened just twice in men’s basketball (2015 and ’19) since the Aggies left the Big 12 in 2012. A renewal of the hostilities here would have far more ramifications than any previous meeting.

Houston vs. Iowa, second round: The Cougars can really defend. The Hawkeyes can really score. These are the kinds of contrasting style matchups that make the tournament so fun.

Houston vs. Texas, Elite Eight: The two best teams in Texas could play a state championship game … in Kansas City. These former Southwest Conference foes have met 63 times, with Houston ahead 32-31. The programs are separated by an average of just 0.4 points per game (75.9-75.5).

Two bracket busters

Penn State: While the Nittany Lions are a major conference team, they draw a double-digit seed for the tournament and could be dangerous. Penn State is coming off three straight wins to make the Big Ten title game, in which it nearly rallied to beat Purdue. Jalen Pickett rarely comes out of the game, for good reason. He averages seven rebounds and seven assists to go with his 18 points per game. But the supporting cast is pretty good, too. One question will be how worn out the team is from its run in Chicago.

Drake: The ability of DeVries to make shots from all spots and angles was already discussed. But one of the aspects of this team that will make it such a difficult out in the postseason is how well it takes care of the basketball. The Bulldogs simply won’t beat themselves, which is an important trait as games get close and stakes get raised this time of year.

Last team standing: Texas

The Big 12 is the most difficult conference in the country, and the Longhorns breezed to the league tournament title, allowing just 53.3 points over three games at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City. They will be right back on that same floor for the regional finals in this tournament. Rodney Terry has done a great job keeping the team on track since taking over as an interim coach when Chris Beard was removed from the program in December. It has helped Terry, who has two wins over Kansas in the last two weeks, that he is coaching one of the most experienced rosters in the country.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

Adam Hill Las Vegas Review-Journal

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