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The Big Basketball Preview: Virginia at Houston

NCAA Basketball: Radford at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Basketball takes to the road for the first time this season, heading to Houston to face the Cougars of the University of Houston.

Though the first meeting in over thirty years, this is actually the seventh meeting of these two schools. One of those was in the 1984 Final Four, won by the (H)akeem Olajuwon-led Cougars. Strangely, the two teams had played just a month earlier, also won by Houston. They also faced off in Tokyo, Japan in 1982. Ralph Sampson was on that team, but did not play. Virginia still came out with an 11 point win. Enough with the history lesson.

Like Virginia the Cougars struggled in their opening matchup. They trailed Hofstra (KenPom: 148) almost all game, but managed to force OT and won the game. We’d be looking at our Wahoos much differently if they’d done the same against Navy (KenPom: 178).

Both teams have some built in excuses, in that they lost big pieces of last year’s team and must integrate newcomers. For Virginia, as you likely know, it’s Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin.

For Houston, it’s Kyler Edwards and Taze Moore. If that first name is familiar to you, it’s because Edwards came from Texas Tech and scored 12 points in 23 minutes on 4/5 shooting in the 2019 NCAA Championship game as a freshman. You’d better believe he’d like some payback.

Moore comes from Cal St Bakersfield, where he led the Roadrunners in scoring a year ago. He’s also an outstanding wing defender, and is likely matched up with Armaan Franklin. Franklin’s ability to either beat Moore, or to get others involved, will likely be the most important aspect of the game. Virginia cannot afford another 2/11 game from Franklin. If the shots aren’t there, use the attention to get others involved.

Houston is led by sophomore Marcus Sasser, last year’s second-leading scorer at 13.7 ppg. (Virginia’s top returner was Kihei Clark at 9.5 ppg, fourth on the team.) Sasser took two-thirds of his shots last year from downtown and made just 33% of them. That drove his overall FG% to just 38%. Sasser was actually quite a bit more effective from 2 point range, because he’s so good at getting to the rack. Sasser was exclusively off the ball last year, but he’s playing more PG this season. He’s really not a PG. He’s looking to score, not to dish.

Is this a good shot? Maybe not. But Sasser has this kind of ability. It’s early, but so far he’s also knocking down the three. He’s 8/18 (44%).

Hofstra is in a 1-3-1 zone here, which is not something you’ll see from Virginia. Still, if Sasser continues to shoot 40+% from downtown, Virginia will be in trouble. Sasser is 6’2” 195. So does Tony use Reece Beekman on him? Or does Sasser see Clark, who he can shoot over. This problem goes away when 6’1” Jamal Shead is on the floor, moving Sasser off the ball. Although he doesn’t start, Shead averages 28 minutes per game in the early going and is a strong perimeter defender. Sasser is not a particularly attentive defender, which Virginia will try to take advantage of whether he’s guarding Clark or Beekman.

Beekman is showing signs of being more aggressive going to the rack this year. Virginia needs more of this from him. Nobody else can consistently get penetration into the defense like Beekman can.

One of either Beekman or Clark likely opens up guarding Edwards or Moore, and that’s a big size advantage for Houston. That will be a matchup to watch, and it’ll be interesting to see if Kelvin Sampson sticks with that lineup or gives Shead extra run again.

One of the places Houston has been vulnerable, both this season and in previous years, is on the defensive glass. This is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation, but they struggle on the other end. Last year’s team ranked just 169th in defensive rebounding rate, and they are 272nd so far this year. That was one of the key ways Hofstra caused problems in the opener. They had 16 offensive rebounds and 13 second chance points.

The Cougars rotate a number of big men. Reggie Chaney, a transfer from Arkansas starts, but is actually fourth in minutes among the bigs. He struggles with foul trouble, and though he’s a beast inside, he doesn’t provide much of an offensive game. Fabian White is the leader in minutes among the bigs. White started 52 consecutive games in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but then missed almost all of last season after tearing his ACL during offseason workouts. White is a much more aggressive scorer than Chaney and will also take some outside shots (3/13 career from three).

John Carlton is a graduate transfer who started 81 games for UCONN over the past three seasons. He has only seen 15 minutes per game, but that may change as his 6’11” frame may be a better matchup for Kadin Shedrick. Sophomore J’Wan Roberts has been the surprise of the frontcourt group so far. He’s grabbed 24 rebounds through two games, and he’s playing strong defense. He’s like Chaney though, in that he brings very little to the offensive side.

This Houston team isn’t as talented as last year’s final four squad, but they may be deeper. They aren’t a great shooting team, but they grab a ton of offensive boards and they play smart basketball without turning it over. Generally speaking, Virginia is very strong on the defensive glass and does not generate many turnovers. That hasn’t been the case this season, as both Navy and Radford were successful on the offensive glass while Virginia is among the nations leaders in steals (mostly due to Beekman who is third in the nation).

The Hoos have not been all that great defensively so far, but it’s early and they’re still figuring out how to work together. Despite the expected growing pains, they’re already better (defensively) than last year’s squad and they have much better individual defenders. They have another gear defensively and that’s likely what it’s going to take for Virginia to knock off the Cougars in Houston.

DraftKings has the 15th-ranked Cougars favored by 7.5. Tipoff is at 8:00 p.m. ET tonight and the game will be on ESPN.