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    Houston is primed for a No. 1 seed and is among the favorites for this season’s national championship. The AAC regular season champs have spent the entire campaign in the top five of the AP Poll and have entered March on a nine-game win streak with only two defeats in the whole season.

    AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht

    The Cougars have been to two-straight Elite Eights, and this era has solidified itself as one of the best in the program’s history. The big piece missing from Houston’s trophy cabinet and Kelvin Sampson’s career is a national championship – could this be the team that gets the Cougars over the hump and propels Sampson into the elite category of title-winning coaches?

    Last National Championship: None

    Last Final Four: 2021

    2023 Title Odds: +600 (as of March 2, 2023)

    Why Houston Will Make a Run

    There is only one team ranked in the top five in KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings: Houston. The Cougars possess outstanding length and athleticism, and they utilize it to smother opponents when they have the ball and score over the top of them when they don’t. Houston shares and protects the ball incredibly well (11th in NCAA in assist/turnover ratio) and is a menace in the paint and on the glass.

    Houston also has tons of experience. Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, Tramon Mark, Reggie Chaney, J’Wan Roberts, and Ramon Walker all played major roles in the team’s Elite Eight run last season, and Sasser, Shead, Mark, Chaney, and Roberts were all on the 2021 Final Four squad, too. You won’t find many teams in the tournament with as much prior March Madness success as this group.

    Why Houston Will Exit Early

    Houston has only dropped two contests heading into March. In both of those losses – to Alabama in December and Temple in January – the Cougars shot worse than 55 percent from the free-throw line and left 10 points on the board in both games from the charity stripe.

    The Cougars shoot 71.6 percent from the free-throw line as a team, a fine-but-not-great rate. About half of the players in the team’s rotation average worse than 69 percent from the line. It’s possible that at some point over the course of six elimination games, Houston could miss half of its free throws and bow out as a result.

    What It’ll Take to Win

    This team plays at one of the nation’s slowest tempos and is extremely efficient with the limited opportunities it gives itself and its opponents. When you gear your game toward minimal possessions, you have to maintain high efficiency with the ball and be dominant on the boards.

    These are things Houston excels at. It’s what makes the Cougars so good. With a roster that goes 10 deep and does a good job of spreading around the responsibilities, Houston can recover if one or two players don’t score at their normal clip or otherwise need slack picked up.

    Houston cannot allow any team to speed it up and get out in transition. A high-tempo game negates many of the Cougars’ advantages. In an ideal world, Houston gets to set up its half-court defense on every opposing possession, and opponents have to figure out a way to score against a team allowing 27.5 percent from beyond the arc and 35.8 percent from the field.


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