BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, fresh off a closer-than-expected victory 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 suffered recently. a groin injury.
Sasser — the Conference American Player of the Year, an All-American and one of the top scorers in college basketball — injured his groin during the conference tournament less than a week ago. He started against Northern Kentucky but played just 14 minutes before aggravating the injury, limping to the bench and being pulled from the game.
Houston struggled to pull away from Northern Kentucky and eventually hung on to win 63-52 to advance in the tournament.
Sasser told reporters after the game that there was “definitely” an option for him to play against No. 9 seed Auburn on Saturday.
Sampson said Sasser, who did not play in Houston’s game on Sunday, did not participate in practice until Wednesday. Sampson said he didn’t know Sasser would play until Thursday morning and that he would have been fine if Sasser had opted 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 up 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 had a high enough percentage out of 100 that he could go.”
Sampson believed his team was deflated when Sasser was sidelined in the second half. Without him — and without a completely healthy roster from top to bottom — Sampson said Houston is not 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 who averaged more than 10 points per game. game this season, sprained his knee in Thursday night’s win. He told reporters he expects to play on Saturday.
Auburn will enjoy a favorable crowd just 100 miles from campus, but Sampson downplayed the advantage.
“We’ll see how many healthy bodies we have right now,” he said. “It’s probably our most important thing.”
Sampson instead turned his focus to the strong play of Northern Kentucky, 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 Norsemen scoring 21 points on second chances.
“They were tougher than we were tonight,” he said. “And that’s not easy for me to say.”