It really seems like there are only two legitimate threats to win the American Athletic Conference right now. With all due respect to teams like Temple, UCF and USF, the Cincinnati Bearcats and Houston Cougars are the heavy favorites. They are the only two teams in the conference with 20 wins right now. No other team has more than 17. They are both 9-1 in league play. No other squad has more than seven league victories. That’s why Sunday’s battle between the Bearcats and Cougars is so critical. Whichever team wins will have grabbed the inside track to the league crown.
In order to get a better idea of what to expect from the Cougars, we reached out to Sam Razz, co-host of the Scott & Holman Podcast, which covers everything in Houston athletics, to get the inside scoop.
Down the Drive: Houston is 22-1 and a top 20 team in the country by just about every metric. What has been the key to their success despite the departure of Rob Gray?
Sam Razz: A healthy amount of that is defense, but as I see the next question is about defense I’ll leave my full answer on that for later. The other key factor has been insane balance and selflessness on the offensive end. Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks have definitely been the most consistent offensive presences. But there have been plenty of games this year where both have had off nights and some combination of DeJon Jarreau, Nate Hinton, Breaon Brady, Ced Alley or Galen Robinson stepped up and the team didn’t skip a beat. The team is a good combination of junkyard dog overlooked upperclassmen (Robinson, Davis Jr., Brooks, Brady) and highly recruited but equally ‘red ass’ underclassmen (Jarreau, Hinton, Alley, Brison Gresham).
DTD: We appreciate good defense at UC. Houston is 11th in adjusted defense this season. What do the Cougars do well defensively to achieve that?
SR: They’ve been nearly impossible to score on on the perimeter and in the paint, ranking in the top 12 nationally in both opponent three-point and two-point percentages. Galen Robinson Jr. and Corey Davis, despite not being physically imposing guys, are absurdly good one-on-one defenders. But really the entire roster plays with a defensive ferocity that’s a testament to Kelvin Sampson and his staff.
DTD: Houston’s only loss this season was to Temple. How were the Owls able to defeat the Cougars?
SR: The length Temple was able to run out there from their big three (Rose, Alston and Pierre-Louis) really gave the Cougar guards problems. This isn’t a really tall group of Cougar guards and it was a bad match up. Also, the Owls got to the line a bunch and made just about every free throw against a Cougar team that sometimes sends opponents to the line too often. Oh and Kelvin Sampson getting T’d up for removing his tie didn’t hurt either.
DTD: Which team in the conference scares you the most?
SR: Cincy. Not pandering, to be quite frank, no team in this league besides Houston has played at Cincy’s level this year. UCF and Temple aren’t consistent enough to scare me in Houston, and the same holds true for the rest of the league. We have a running joke between us on our show that games with opponents like Cincy are “rock fights” because they’re super physical and intense games against an opponent you’re not going to out tough. Jarron Cumberland specifically is going to be a match up that challenges the Coogs and I am really looking forward to seeing it.
DTD: Who is your pick from Houston to win American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and why?
SR: Corey Davis Jr. In my opinion, he’s the most criminally underrated UH player since I started really following the team close (12-13 years ago). He’s an elite on-ball defender who will always take the toughest matchup and he almost always comes out better than the guy he guarded. He’s a guy who’ll get multiple stitches above his eye and go in at just about the next break in the action. He’s also the team’s most reliable free throw shooter and a confidence shooter that paired with Armoni Brooks can shoot an opponent out of a game in minutes. His offensive numbers (just above 15 PPG) hampers him in league player of the year discussions, but I don’t believe there’s a player who has been more valuable to their team on both ends of the court than Corey Davis
DTD: The Bearcats are not great at defending the three. Houston leads the conference in attempts and makes from beyond the arc in league play. Is there a way to slow the Cougars down from distance?
SR: Temple’s length gave the Coogs some trouble shooting from deep in both the loss and the Coogs’ recent home win. The team’s main shooters (Davis, Brooks) can be kind of streaky, but that’s kind of the nature of the beast with volume three-point shooting. Maybe, tempt Nate Hinton and Ced Alley to take lots of threes as they’re both freshmen with less consistent shots from deep. But that’s fraught with peril too as ECU and UCF found out when they didn’t try to seriously defend Hinton and Alley, and both went off from deep.
DTD: Who wins this game and why?
SR: Houston. I hate score predictions, so I’ll be as specific as saying it’ll probably be by an under five point margin. Cincy to me is always going to represent a tough opponent and even a long home winning streak and the team playing at a high level will [not] make me super confident in us facing Cincy. If I am being honest, it feels like a year where our two teams take the home games.
BONUS QUESTION: Where will Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign?
SR: The San Diego Padres and Harper/Machado plus a great young prospect class become the Golden State Warriors of baseball. Please bring this take up in a few months when its hilariously wrong, too.