BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, fresh off a closer than expected win over No. 16 seed Northern Kentucky during 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 American Conference Player of the Year, All-American and one of the best scorers in college basketball — injured his groin during the conference tournament less than a week ago. He started against Northern Kentucky but played only 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 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 against No. 9 seed Auburn on Saturday.
Sampson said that Sasser, who did not 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 he would have been fine had Sasser chosen to sit out.
“I’ve been with Marcus for four years,” he said. “I trust Marcus and I trust our trainer. 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 give it a try because he thought he was at 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 fully healthy roster top to bottom — Sampson said Houston isn’t No. 1 seed material.
“We don’t have another Marcus Sasser,” he said. “But everybody has to stay in their lane.”
Jamal Shead, one of four Houston players who averaged more than 10 points per game this season, hyperextended his knee in Thursday night’s win. He told reporters he expects to play on Saturday.
Auburn will enjoy a favorable crowd being only 100 miles from campus, but Sampson downplayed the advantage.
“We got to go see how many healthy bodies we have right now,” he said. “That’s probably our most important thing.”
Sampson instead turned the 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’re well-coached.”
Sampson cited the Norse scoring 21 points on second-chance opportunities.
“They were tougher than we were tonight,” he said. “And that’s not easy for me to say.”