At times it seemed like neither team was particularly interested in scoring, but thanks to an unstoppable effort by sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson and a perfectly timed standout game from graduate-transfer Keyshawn Woods, the No. 11 Ohio State Buckeyes (20-14, 8-12) upset the No. 6 Iowa State Cyclones in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night, 62-59.
With their 20th win of the season, Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes live to play another day, and that day is today... or more accurately, tonight, as they will return to the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. at approximately 8:40 p.m. ET/7:40 p.m. CT to take on the third-seeded Houston Cougars (32-3, 16-2). The game will be broadcast on TNT, and the winner will book a trip to Kansas City, Mo. for the Sweet 16 on Friday.
While neither the current Ohio State players or staff were around at the time, Houston’s head coach will look very familiar to Ohio State fans, as former Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson is running things on the Cougar sideline these days. Following six seasons as an assistant in the NBA, Sampson returned to the college ranks in 2014 after previous stops in charge at Washington State, Oklahoma, and IU.
Sampson was in Bloomington for less than two years from March 2006 to February 2008. Despite a 43–15 overall record, including a 21-8 mark in the Big Ten, Sampson was forced out due to serious suspicions of NCAA violations that eventually led to the university receiving three years of probation, and the coach being hit with a five-year show cause penalty.
No school wanted to take that on, leading to the coach’s six-year foray into pro hoops. When Houston hired him, Sampson became just the fourth coach — following Todd Bozeman, Sampson’s former assistant Rob Senderoff, and Bruce Pearl — to be hired as an NCAA head coach following the conclusion of a show cause penalty.
For better or for worse, Sampson returned to the collegiate game in 2014, and has been building the Houston program into a dominating force in the American Athletic Conference ever since. In nearly five complete seasons, Sampson’s Cougars have gone 114–51 overall and 58–32 in the AAC.
This season’s Cougar squad was at or near the top of their league in most conference offensive categories, including first in three-point shots (453), makes (177), and percentage (39.1); rebounds (712); and assists (276). As well as second in field goals (1,062), FG percentage (45.8), defensive rebounds (494), points (1,401), and PPG (77.8).
Offensively, the Cougs are led by senior guard Corey Davis Jr. The junior college transfer averages 16.9 points per game, which puts him sixth in the AAC. His 3.1 baskets from behind the arc per outing is good for third in the league.
The only other member of Sampson’s team that averages in double figures is junior guard Armoni Brooks (13.3), who leads the conference in three-pointers made per game with 3.2. Despite being just 6-foot-3, Brooks also ranks fourth in the AAC with 5.3 defensive rebounds per game.
The rest of Houston’s scoring is broken up fairly evenly amongst six other players who all average 4.9 ppg or more. Sophomore guard Dejon Jarreau (8.9), senior guard Galen Robinson Jr. (7.8), freshman guard Nate Hinton (7.5), senior forward Breaon Brady (6.3), sophomore forward Fabian White Jr. (6.3), and freshman forward Cedrick Alley Jr. (4.9).
Much of the impressive scoring output makes sense from a team whose five top scorers are all guards, but what is most impressive is that their rebounding totals rank amongst the best nationally, not just in the AAC. Their 1,442 rebounds is fourth in the country, while they are sixth on the defensive glass.
One area that Holtmann’s Buckeyes might be able to exploit is the fact that on the season, Houston has committed 662 personal fouls. Believe it or not, that’s 58 more than the Ohio State.
Check out the highlights of Houston’s first round win over Georgia State:
ESPN BPI: Houston 74.5%
Houston is a decidedly perimeter focused team, with their only two players of note that approach Kaleb Wesson’s size (Brison Gresham at 6’8 and Chris Harris at 6’10) averaging a combined 6.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 4.2 fouls in 24.7 minutes of action.
Against Iowa State, the younger Wesson brother was an unstoppable force down low. The Cyclones steadfastly refused to double-team him, allowing him to have his way on the block. On the rare occasions when a defender did provide help, Wesson was able to find players on the outside to make shots and get into the lane to score.
Over the past few weeks of the season Woods has played with a confidence that hadn’t been seen from him in the graduate-transfer’s previous 3.5 months on the floor for the Buckeyes. However, against Iowa State, he was a game-changing force that provided a much needed outside complement to Kaleb’s inside dominance.
As long as the younger Wesson is not forced to the bench due to unnecessary fouls, it is difficult to imagine the Cougars having the bodies or inside talent to contain him. And, unlike with many powerful big men, going to a “Hack-a-Kaleb” philosophy — and just throwing waves of fouls at him — won’t help much, as Wesson is shooting 73.7 percent from the line on the season.
While Sampson’s crew will certainly look to spread the wealth, Ohio State’s oft-criticized roster might be perfectly constructed to compete with the Cougs. With defensive-minded guards Luther Muhammad and Musa Jallow — not to mention tough-as-nails forwards Andre Wesson and Kyle Young — in the rotation along with OSU’s traditional scorers Kaleb Wesson, Woods, C.J. Jackson, and Duane Washington Jr., the Buckeyes might just be able to add a another “Sweet” game to their season next weekend.