Villanova vs Houston Preview: The Cougar Q&A


Courtesy of Sean Thomas/The Cougar

Houston guard Kyler Edwards will be key in Villanova’s matchup with the Cougars.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

SAN ANTONIO — Before Villanova’s Elite Eight matchup with Houston, we interviewed James Mueller, the Houston basketball beat writer from The Cougar, Houston’s student newspaper, about his team and his predictions for tonight’s game.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: As someone who’s covered Houston throughout the entire season, what would you say has been the key to Houston’s success this year?

James Mueller: Just their toughness. You look at them on paper, they’re not the most talented team. They don’t stand out that much. They don’t have a superstar. In December, the two of their best guards, Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, went down and no one expected them to keep on winning, but Kelvin Sampson has instilled a culture, just built on toughness. Defense is the foundation of this program and they’ve been a top defensive team every year under Kelvin Sampson, and they cause their opponents lots of trouble, so that’s been key. 

Just the little hustle plays they make, from dominating offensive boards because they’re not a great first shot team, but getting opportunity after opportunity for second chance points has been huge. They’re always first guys on the floor after a loose ball, sacrificing their bodies for whatever, taking the charges, making those little plays that might go unnoticed, but really impact the game. Within the Houston program, it’s those little plays that excite the players and bring more energy to the team.

They get more excited about a guy taking a charge than a highlight dunk or anything like that.

Q: This is the second consecutive Elite Eight that Houston has been to. How has Kelvin Sampson been able to create that level of success even with so much roster turnover?

JM: He just gets buy-in from every player. He has talked about in the past how, since UH has been on the rise under him, he’s had people that want to transfer, names that he won’t say publicly, but big time names that they’ve turned down because he and his staff’s recruiting process is very meticulous. They’re looking for guys that are unselfish, team-first, come from good families, things like that. And he finds guys like that and gets them to fully buy in. 

Talking to anyone within the program, or even from myself, from what I’ve seen, his practices are as intense as I’ve ever seen. Kelvin always brings his a-game to those practices. They’re not just going through the motions, he’s getting every ounce that he can get out of his team during those practices. He really gets the most out of that, and it translates over into games because they’re drilled with his philosophy. Once the bright lights come on, then it’s just natural for them.

Q: Houston and Villanova are both two of the slowest teams in the country in terms of pace of play. How is Houston able to control the tempo of the game?

JM: On offense, especially, they don’t have that one stud, so ball movement’s key there. They’re able to use up some clock, move the ball around, look for the best shot, always try and make that extra pass. Like I said, they don’t have that one star guy that can just go ISO while the rest of the team just sits back and watches.

And then, defensively, they never take a possession off. They keep the other team on their toes, every trip down the floor, they make them work so hard for that shot that they tire guys out. And especially on the offensive boards as well, offensive rebound after offensive rebound, the opponent just starts to get worn down after a time. And then, Houston is able to play at that pace that they want to.

Q: Throughout the season, national sports writers haven’t really known what to do with Houston in terms of rankings. They were top-ten, then they plummeted after two straight losses. Now they’re a fifth seed and they’re considered one of the favorites to win the national championship and go all the way. What would you say has been the true Houston? What should their ranking be?

JM: I felt like they probably should have been a four seed. They did not have those Quad One wins, which the committee really puts a lot of emphasis on when choosing seeds. I thought they would be a four seed, but honestly, with this team, Kelvin’s talked about it with a bunch of players, they don’t really care about the seed. They don’t pay attention to any of that because they know people are gonna doubt them no matter what. Overall, I think they’re a four seed, if I had to see them.

Q: What would you say is going to be the key for tonight?

JM: For Houston, they’re going to give Villanova some three pointers. They’re going to force them to kick it out and make some tough shots. If Collin Gillespie or another guy heats from three, then that could be trouble.

Kelvin Sampson always talks about how Houston’s going to win the games in the fifties and sixties, but when they get into those seventies and eighties, they don’t have the offensive firepower. So really setting the tone on defense early and forcing Villanova to take some of those tough shots rather than some easy inside buckets or anything will be key. But like I said, if the three ball is falling for the Wildcats, it could be trouble for Houston.

Q: With two defensive teams that are very successful when holding their opponent to under 70 points (Houston is 169-30 under Sampson when allowing less than 70 points while Villanova is 24-2 this year), what will be the difference maker in what will likely be a low scoring game?

JM: I think the biggest thing I’m looking for is can Houston convert those second chance opportunities? I agree with you, prepping for this game, I don’t think it’s going to be a shootout because both these teams are so good on defense and they hold their opponents to low scoring games, they’ve been doing it all year. So for Houston, they’re gonna miss a lot of shots, but are they going to be able to create second chance opportunities like they’ve done all season and convert them? Against Arizona, they created a lot of second chance opportunities, but weren’t able to convert them. But luckily for Houston, they were hot from behind the arc, so that sort of made up for it. But tonight, Houston’s got to create those second chance opportunities and convert them. That’s what will win them the game, if they do win.

Q: What’s your prediction for tonight?

JM: I’ll be honest, I did not expect Houston to get past Arizona. I did not think it was a great matchup for them, but tonight, I’m leaning towards the Cougars. I think it will be like a 59-54 type game, maybe even lower scoring than that. I think it’ll just be a back and forth game, but I do think Houston will come out on top.