Phi Slamma Jamma. Elvin Hayes. Hakeem Olajuwon. Clyde Drexler. The Game of the Century.
Yes, Houston is one of the most history-rich schools in college basketball. But the school that popularized the dunk has fallen upon hard times, absent from the NCAA tournament since 1992. Understandably, this surprising appearance is a big deal. They're back, at least for one game.
If Maryland can help it, the comeback won't last any longer.
The Cougars run a high-tempo offense centered around the nation's leading scorer, 6-4 senior guard Aubrey Coleman. Coleman can create his own shot, and he takes plenty of them - 697, to be exact, compared to Greivis Vasquez's 480. He's pretty efficient from the field (43%), a product of his ability to get to the rim and finish, although he won't light up any teams from deep (31%). Regardless, his ability to put points on the board is formidable, and Maryland might need to rotate defenders on him.
Coleman's own mentality kind of mirrors that of the Cougars - lots and lots of possessions and lots and lots of shots. They can get off so many shots and have so many possessions because they hold onto the ball, force turnovers, and push the pace. That doesn't always equate to efficiency, though: they possess the 20th fastest tempo, and rank 21st in points scored per game. That's not bad until you realize that Maryland, who is 51st in tempo, is 18th in points. They have a mostly efficient offense - 45th in points per possession - but Maryland's is significantly more efficient at 18th in points per possession.
Interesting thing about Houston's offense and Maryland's defense: according to KenPom, UH's offense is the 40th best. MD's defense is the 40th best. Something's gotta give.
Speaking of defense, forcing turnovers is a major strength of the Coogs. Their steal% is the best in the nation. Unfortunately for them, they don't do much when not forcing a TO. Their defensive eFG% is in the upper 200s, and teams shoot better than 50% from 2 against them. They use a variety of defenses in an attempt to keep teams off the board, but have found limited success in using them. The stats - most teams score their points against them inside the three point line - indicate to me a high pressure defense that leaves them susceptible inside and in the mid-range. This is a game for Landon Milbourne and Greivis Vasquez to shine.
Outside of Coleman, Houston also has Kelvin Lewis, another 6-4 senior guard. He averages a respectable 15 points per game, and is one of Houston's better outside shooter at nearly 40% from 3. He's also their best on-ball defender, or at least whom Houston fans expect to match up with Greivis Vasquez.
Other than that, things start to thin out. The point guard is Desmond Wade, a 5-8 junior. He's efficient and avoids turnovers, but provides little in the way of offense. The front court is mostly made up of three players: 6-8 Sean Coleman, 6-7 Kendric Washington, and 6-9 Marcus McNeil.
Coleman and Washington are technically the starters, but McNeil holds a role similar to Eric Hayes' last year. He didn't start in the C-USA tournament, but played more than the other two and is the team's third leader in scoring. He also happens to be the best rebounder of the team. Washington is massive, but in a bad way - he's 6-7, 270. I can't imagine him being in shape, though you never really know. Both his and S. Coleman's statlines are rather unimpressive.
While we're on the frontcourt, we might as well bring up rebounding, where Houston is potentially even worse than Maryland. They don't have a lot of size - Landon Milbourne matches up well with their front line - and are, statistically, worse at rebounding than the Terps. Considering that second chances have been Maryland's kryptonite lately, a poor rebounding team is a very welcome sight.
Houston will run out of the gym, get a lot of possessions, force turnovers, and has a player that can take over a game. But they also are susceptible on defense, very bad on the glass, and - let's be honest - probably shouldn't be here. They had a 15-15 record in the regular season and are 7-9 in a conference far inferior to the ACC. Had they not gone on the late run, they wouldn't be close to the tournament.
That's not to say they can't win - anytime you have a guy that can take over a game like A. Coleman, you have a shot. Combine that with the excitement and momentum surrounding the program, and an unfocused Maryland team could certainly be toppled. But as long as Maryland plays to their capability, limits turnovers, and makes the shots given to them, they'll probably win. It might not be comfortable - A. Coleman can keep them in the game, and this offense is good enough to stay close, not to mention Maryland's own problems with slow starts recently - but a loss would be very surprising. Still possible - that's why it's March Madness - but unexpected.