The next two weeks may present the UH men’s basketball team’s best opportunity to position itself for a run at the NCAA Tournament.
The Cougars are missing an overwhelming out-of-conference win (at 11-7, Oklahoma isn’t looking too hot) and sit in fifth place in the Conference USA standings. With 13 games remaining, UH must turn its focus to capturing a high seed in the conference tournament, instead of earning an at-large bid to March Madness.
The Cougars RPI is hovering around 115. Unless they start playing way above their potential, they will need to win the C-USA tourney in Tulsa, Okla. to earn an invite to the Big Dance. UH will begin a crucial four-game stretch that could determine its seeding in the C-USA tournament when it hosts Central Florida at 7 p.m. Wednesday inside Hofheinz Pavilion.
The Cougars (10-7, 3-1) are riding a two-game win streak after defeating East Carolina, 74-55, on Saturday in Greenville, N.C. But with matchups at Memphis (13-4, 3-0), vs. Marshall (15-2, 4-0) and at UTEP (11-5, 2-1) looming, UH will prove whether it is a serious contender for a conference crown.
The Knights (9-8, 1-2) are desperate to taste victory after dropping four of their last five contests, including a shocking 61-51 home loss to Jacksonville. They are holding opponents to less than 70 points per game, however, and dropped road games against the Big East’s Connecticut and South Florida by single-digits.
The Cougars, who are averaging 83.4 points per contest, want to play at a faster pace than the Knights. UH is allowing 76.5 points per game, but displayed an ability to use firm defense to gain control of a game’s tempo against UTEP and ECU. Those two schools shot a combined 36.4 percent against the Cougars.
Neither team rebounds at an astonishing rate, as both squads are averaging less than 35 boards per contest. But no team protects the ball better than the Cougars, who sport the nation’s best turnover margin (9.3-plus) and turn it over only 9.2 times per game.
Head coach Tom Penders will probably ask the nation’s top scorer, Aubrey Coleman, to shoulder most of the offensive load. The senior guard has performed quite well of late, garnering C-USA Player of the Week honors on Monday for his back-to-back 20-plus point performances against UTEP (game-high 22 points) and ECU (game-high 25 points). He also became the 43rd Cougar to score 1,000 points in his career when he made his first 3-pointer against the Miners.
Coleman’s sidekick, Kelvin Lewis, who is averaging 17.2 points per game, will attempt to spread out UCF’s defense by hitting shots from the perimeter. The senior guard is shooting 45.1 percent from 3-point range, including a 4-for-8 performance against ECU.
UCF’s offense features more balance than the Cougars, as it sports four players who are averaging between 9.2 and 10.8 points per game.
The Knights have settled into an eight-man rotation, but their 14.6 turnovers per game could prevent them from scoring enough. UCF must protect the ball or shoot well, because it will need every point it can get to keep up with one of the country’s most productive offenses.