The Houston Cougars are off to their best start in fifty years and take their undefeated record on the road with them tonight to Philly to play the Temple Owls. Houston comes into this game 15-0 and ranked in both major polls. There are some questions though as to just how good this team is as they have the 293rd softest schedule in the country.
For the Owls, they are off to a strong start as well as they are 11-3, with all three of their losses coming to teams that project as NCAA tournament teams in March. The Cougars are -1-point road favorites. The game total over-under is set at 136.5 points. Tipoff is scheduled for 4:00 PM PST from the Liacouras Center.
Just how good is this Houston team right now? Depending on where you look, you are going to get drastically different answers. If you look at the new NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) rankings, which in all reality is the one ranking that really matters, the Cougars are the fourth best team in America. Trailing only Virginia, Duke, and Michigan. The NET ranking has come under a lot of fire since being unveiled earlier this season and will replace RPI as the metric the selection committee uses to seed and select the NCAA tournament teams. So, if you could be ranked highly in only one ranking, NET would be the one you would choose.
But when you look at some other rankings and polls, the picture gets a little less clear. The AP Poll has the Cougars ranked 17th. The ESPN coach’s poll has them at 15th. Kenpom has them ranked significantly lower at 31. Andy Katz has then at number eight in his top thirty-six. So, depending on who you ask, this team is elite, very good, or just decent. My eyeballs tell me this team falls somewhere between very good and decent.
Yes, they are undefeated, but they have played some very close games and could easily have a loss or two on their resume. This isn’t like watching Duke beat teams by forty points, this team has had to fight hard to earn most of their wins. The Cougars have a couple nice wins, but nothing too impressive. Wins over BYU, Oregon, LSU, and Utah State should all hold up as top one hundred wins, but right now the wins are more quantity over quality for Houston.
Houston prides itself on the defensive side of the ball where they rank in the top ten nationally in field goal percentage defense and scoring defense. Kenpom has Houston as the twelfths best defense in terms of efficiency in the country. They also rebound the ball exceptionally well as they are 8th in the nation at nearly forty-three boards a game. They use that great defense and rebounding to control the ball and grind teams down.
Temple came into the season knowing that they had a shot to compete for the AAC title. The American shakes out a lot different than it has in its short history as perennial powers like UCONN, Wichita State, and Memphis are struggling and teams like Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, and Temple are at the top of the rankings. The Owls lost their first league game this year in a tough battle on the road at UCF. But they managed to bounce right back and pick up a win over Wichita in their last game. The Owls have a couple of solid wins on their non-conference resume as they beat major conference teams Georgia, Cal, and Missouri.
Unlike the Cougars, who do a great job crashing the boards, the Owls really struggle on the glass. Temple is just 271st in the country in rebounds per game. If they can’t find a way to stop the Cougars from dominating the glass, they are going to have a hard time tonight.
There are certainly questions to just how good this Houston team is. But when you look at the advanced metrics on Temple, the story is clear, they aren’t a tournament team right now. That’s not to say that they can’t get hot and pick up enough wins to get an at-large bid, the AAC has plenty of talent this year so the opportunity will be there. But right now, where both of these teams stand, this is a bit of a mismatch.
I would be shocked to see Houston go into Temple and blow them out, but I do see them as the side to back. Houston doesn’t really blow anyone out, as they struggle to score the ball at times. So, I think this game is a one or two possession game down the stretch. I just think that the Cougars find a way to get the job done tonight and stay undefeated.
Where Temple struggles is where Houston dominates. The Owls are a poor shooting team that can’t rebound the ball. The fact that Houston has a suffocating defense and dominates the boards tells me that stylistically, the Owls are really going to struggle tonight at home. Give me the Houston Cougars laying -1-point on the road tonight at Temple!