Alex ScarboroughESPN Writer2 minute read
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who is coming off a closer-than-expected win over No. 16 seed Northern Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night, defended the decision to play star guard Marcus Sasser, who recently suffered a groin injury.
Sasser — the conference’s All-American Player of the Year, All-American and one of college basketball’s leading scorers — suffered a groin injury in the conference tournament less than a year ago. week. He started against Northern Kentucky but only played 14 minutes before aggravating the injury, hobbling to the bench, and being taken out of the game.
Houston struggled to pull away from Northern Kentucky and ultimately hung on to win 63-52 to advance in the tournament.
Sasser told reporters after the game that there was “definitely” an opportunity for him to play No. 9 seed Auburn on Saturday.
Sampson said Sasser, who didn’t play in Houston’s game on Sunday, didn’t participate in practice until Wednesday. Sampson said he didn’t know Sasser would play until Thursday morning and that it would have been fine if Sasser had chosen to sit out.
“I’ve been with Marcus for four years,” he said. “I trust Marcus and I trust our coach. I leave those decisions to them. Marcus knows his body better than anyone in this room, including me.
“So I would have been fine if Marcus had decided not to play tonight, but he wanted to try because he thought he was at a high enough percentage out of 100 that he could go.”
Sampson thought his team was deflated when Sasser was sidelined in the second half. Without him — and without an entirely healthy roster from top to bottom — Sampson said Houston wasn’t No. 1 seed material.
“We don’t have another Marcus Sasser,” he said. “But everyone has to stay in their lane.”
Jamal Shead, one of four Houston players to average more than 10 points per game this season, strained his knee in Thursday night’s win. He told reporters he planned to play on Saturday.
Auburn will enjoy a supportive crowd just 100 miles from campus, but Sampson played down the advantage.
“We have to go see how many healthy bodies we have right now,” he said. “That’s probably our most important thing.”
Sampson instead focused on Northern Kentucky’s solid play, which kept the game close throughout.
“I don’t coach Northern Kentucky, but I was proud of their team tonight,” he said. “They fought. They are well trained.”
Sampson cited the Norse scoring 21 points from second chance opportunities.
“They were tougher than us tonight,” he said. “And it’s not easy for me to say.”