Houston is so balanced that two of its best players, Nate Hinton and Caleb Mills, combined for only five points at South Florida on Wednesday, but the 20th-ranked Cougars still won 62-58 to stay atop the American Athletic Conference standings.
“We’re kind of, who’s going good, and let them have it,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said.
Next up is a much stiffer challenge than what was presented by South Florida, which has lost 30 straight games against ranked teams since 2012.
The Cougars (20-5, 10-2 AAC) travel to SMU (17-6, 7-4) on Saturday to play a Mustangs team that has won five of its last seven games since losing at Houston on Jan. 15.
Sophomore guard Quentin Grimes was Houston’s top player against South Florida, scoring nine of his 22 points in the last 3:28.
“Grimes has had his moments,” Sampson said. “He’s been kind of up and down. He played pretty good against Wichita State the other day. He’s had good games, but here recently, his confidence is coming along.”
Hinton, who averages 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds a game, finished with three points and five rebounds vs. South Florida.
Mills, who is tied with Grimes for the team lead with 12.6 points a game, had only two points against the Bulls. DeJon Jarreau, who is averaging 9.4 points, finished with only four points and had four turnovers.
Picking up the slack were Grimes and Fabian White Jr. (10 points on 5-of-7 shooting).
SMU is coming off a 79-75 win at home against UConn on Wednesday.
Feron Hunt scored a career-high 23 points and was 4-for-4 at the free throw line in the last 16 seconds for the Mustangs. Hunt scored double his season average, thanks to going 8-for-9 from the floor, including hitting both of 3-point attempts. He also added seven rebounds.
In last month’s 71-62 loss at Houston, Hunt had 14 points and four blocks. Kendric Davis led the Mustangs with 19 points and six assists.
SMU must correct its rebounding deficiency it showed against the Cougars, losing the battle 45-34, to have a better opportunity to get an NCAA Tournament resume-building win.
“Everyone’s saying that,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said of the must-win scenario. “Everyone has to do that. It’s the challenge of the season. You’ve got to win as many as you can. You’ve got to win against some of the better teams, or else you don’t get what you want.”
The key for SMU is to get good ball movement and shoot close to or better than 50 percent from the field. The Mustangs are 10-0 when making more than half of their shots in the game.
They lead the AAC with 16.7 assists per game, with Davis the top assist player with 7.3 assists per game.
Houston’s defense will be a tough challenge for the Mustangs. The Cougars are limiting opponents to 37.7 percent from the field, 29.8 percent from 3-point range. Opponents have more turnovers (295) than assists (284).
The Mustangs shot only 40.3 percent from the field last month against Houston, including 24 percent from beyond the arc.
–Field Level Media