Houston Cougars vs. Auburn Tigers
Line: Houston -5
Where: Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama
When: Saturday, 3/18 at 7:10 p.m. ET
No. 1 seed Houston will try to maintain its status as the NCAA Tournament favorite when it faces No. 9 seed Auburn in a tricky matchup on Saturday night.
The Cougars entered the Big Dance with some concerns surrounding the health of star guard Marcus Sasser, even though they were still the favorites to cut down the nets. They advanced past No. 16 seed Northern Kentucky in the opening round, but they did not put any concerns to rest.
Northern Kentucky trailed by just three at halftime and was tied with less than 16 minutes remaining before Houston pulled away behind 16 points from Jarace Walker. Sasser, who was dealing with a groin injury that he suffered in the AAC Tournament, finished with five points in less than 14 minutes of playing time, sitting out the entire second half.
“He said it felt funny,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “So he shut it down, which is the right thing to do.”
The futures odds have remained largely unchanged, with Houston as the +450 ‘chalk’ at DraftKings. However, the Cougars have plummeted to 5-point favorites against Auburn after opening at -7.5. The total has also dipped, falling from 133.5 to 132, as the Cougars have gone ‘under’ in four of their last five games.
Sasser’s injury is not the only issue for Sampson’s squad, as guard Jamal Shead is dealing with a sore knee. He played more than 36 minutes against Northern Kentucky, scoring 13 points and dishing out six assists. With multiple injuries popping up, the Cougars will be relying even more on a defense that ranks fourth in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings.
“We’ve got to see how many healthy bodies we have right now,” Sampson said. “That’s probably our most important thing.”
Auburn lost nine of its final 13 games heading into the NCAA Tournament, but it took advantage of the fresh start with an 83-75 win over No. 8 seed Iowa in the first round, marking its tenth-straight opening-round victory. Johni Broome posted a double-double with 19 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in front of a pro-Auburn crowd two hours from campus.
“They were loud and rowdy the whole game,” Auburn guard Allen Flanigan said. “It felt like a home game for us.”
Six players scored in double figures for the Tigers, which rank No. 45 in offensive efficiency. They rank No. 309 in 3-point percentage (31.5), but they knocked down seven triples in the second half after starting 1 of 9 on Thursday. This will be a challenging matchup against a Houston defense that is second nationally in 3-point defense (27.3).
Broome leads Auburn with 14.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while guard Wendell Green Jr. is averaging 13.9 points and 4.1 assists. The Tigers have been a strong defensive team, ranked No. 12 in effective field goal percentage and No. 4 in 3-point percentage (28.7).
Houston has only covered the spread once in its last seven games, but it is 4-2 ATS in its last six games against SEC teams. Auburn has gone ‘over’ in five of its last six games and has won four of its last five contests against AAC foes.
The pick: Auburn +5
This matchup immediately stuck out as a brutal draw for Houston when the bracket was revealed on Sunday night, with Auburn essentially getting dealt a home game against a No. 1 seed in the second round. It has become increasingly more concerning for the Cougars following the injuries to Sasser and Shead, who are both double-digit scorers. Houston is still the title favorite in the futures market—it would likely be fine if it can advance and give itself time to heal before next weekend—but that’s not going to be easy. I expect Auburn’s fan base to show up with even more of a presence now that they can sense blood in the water, giving their team a major lift. The Tigers went 14-2 at home and just 4-8 on the road this season, so having the crowd advantage on Saturday night is massive. Houston has only covered the spread once in its last seven games and is not worth backing even at this low price.