Houston hopes to make impression vs. No. 19 SMU (Feb 18, 2017)
No. 19 Southern Methodist has joined Cincinnati at the top of the American Athletic Conference thanks to its stingy defense. Houston is making a late-season run at an at-large NCAA Tournament berth thanks to an explosive offense.
When SMU and Houston meet in a late-afternoon tip Saturday at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston, the Cougars will have a golden opportunity to register the signature win their light resume desperately needs. But can playing at home be worth 21 points?
The Mustangs (23-4, 13-1) thumped Houston 85-64 in the team's first matchup on Jan. 21 in Dallas. Since then, the Cougars (18-7, 9-4) have won five in a row, although none of those wins are likely to resonate with the selection committee.
This game, as well as a March 2 visit to Cincinnati, are Houston's best remaining regular season chances to make an impression. For that to happen, it will likely need big games from its top two scorers -- guards Rob Gray and Damyean Dotson.
Gray leads the AAC in scoring at 20.5 points per game, while Dotson is fourth in the conference at 17.2 points-per-game. The duo basically carried the Cougars to a 73-64 win on Feb. 11 at Tulsa, as Gray drilled six 3-pointers and scored a game-high 28 points, while Dotson added three 3s and 24 points.
Dotson has been especially hot lately, pouring in 32 points on Feb. 8 in a rout of Tulane. Coach Kelvin Sampson said after a Feb. 1 win over Central Florida in which Dotson went for 31 that if the season started then, Dotson may be their leading scorer.
"We're running a lot more stuff for him," Sampson said. "Dotson doesn't take a back seat to anybody."
Houston will need Dotson and Gray in the driver's seat against an SMU squad that has explosive scorers, but relies more on balance and shutdown defense. The Mustangs have won eight in a row since a Jan. 12 loss at Cincinnati, putting an exclamation mark on their return to the Top 25 by grinding out a 60-51 win over the Bearcats Sunday in Dallas.
SMU might have been a bit drained from that effort Wednesday night when it hosted Tulane, which belied its 4-21 record by taking a 15-point halftime lead. But the Mustangs went to the whip, outscored the Green Wave 53-33 in the second half and walked off the Moody Coliseum floor with an 80-75 decision.
It was the first time in 20 games that SMU had allowed more than 66 points.
"No way do I want to take away from what Tulane did," said SMU coach Tim Jankovich. "Human nature took over. And we obviously were not in a perfect magic level of competition in the first half. We just had to win the second half on grit, and once again we did."
All five starters were in double figures for the Mustangs, led by 19 points from Jarrey Foster. SMU played just six players for the second straight game -- its six remaining scholarship players -- as it has had to overcome multiple injuries.