When Virginia men’s basketball welcomes Houston Saturday, John Paul Jones Arena will likely be void of any empty seats. The clash between the No. 2 Cavaliers (8-0, 1-0 ACC) and the No. 5 Cougars (10-1, 0-0 AAC) is set to be the biggest non-conference affair the program has ever hosted.
The visitors — formerly ranked No. 1 — enter this contest with less momentum than expected, as a 71-65 loss to No. 4 Alabama last Saturday marked both their first defeat of the campaign and the lone game in which they’ve allowed 60 or more points. Despite the blemish, Houston still allows the fewest opponent points per game in all of Division I with 49.36 and will be sure to cause all types of problems for Virginia’s offense.
Those problems will begin in the backcourt, where the Cougars post two of the country’s peskiest perimeter defenders. Senior guard Marcus Sasser and junior guard Jamal Shead combine to average 3.9 steals per game as part of a unit that ranks top 30 in the country in the category. Thankfully for the Cavaliers, they are as well-suited as anyone to handle pressure on offense, having played their way to the fewest turnovers in the nation thus far.
But it doesn’t get any easier in the paint, as Houston also ranks inside the top 10 in blocks per game, thanks in large part to its frontcourt duo of freshman forward Jarace Walker and junior forward J’Wan Roberts. Walker and Roberts will be of supreme focus for Virginia on both ends, as the forwards are the catalysts for a Houston team that grabs the 14th most offensive rebounds in the country.
When the Cougars earn those second chances, it will again be Sasser that the Cavaliers need to lock in on. The senior is pacing Houston with 16.1 points per game, having produced double-digit scoring nights eight times already this season. Sasser has struggled to connect consistently from beyond the arc during this campaign, but three previous years of excellence in that area will leave Virginia — and more specifically junior guard Reece Beekman — to worry about the guard from long range.
After Sasser, it’s been a balanced Cougars attack. Shead will run the show for Houston in dangerous fashion, having flashed elite playmaking ability on his way to dishing out 5.72 assists per game. Walker, Roberts and sophomore guard Tramon Mark will be the complements but will not go overlooked by the Cavaliers considering the depth of the Cougars’ roster.
Virginia will need to rediscover its form on the offensive side of the ball if it wants to hang with one of the country’s best defensive units. The Cavaliers began the season with six torrid offensive performances of at least 70 points, but have since stalled in their most recent pair of contests, averaging only 58.5 points and shooting just 25 percent from three-point range.
Graduate student guard Kihei Clark has been a rare bright spot for Virginia during the span, posting 18 points in both games to lead the Cavaliers. But Clark will need to bounce back at the charity stripe Saturday, as the graduate student made good on just six of his 12 free-throw attempts against James Madison last Tuesday.
The health of Beekman will be an important storyline ahead of Saturday’s clash, as the junior exited the contest against James Madison on Dec. 6 with a hamstring injury. There has been no indication of whether Beekman will be at full strength or available to play at all, but Virginia desperately needs him on both sides of the ball — the Cavaliers especially struggled on offense against the Dukes without the junior’s services.
Elsewhere, Virginia will be hoping senior guard Armaan Franklin can get back on track. Franklin started the season with two 20-point outings in his first three games but has failed to hit double figures in five games since. The senior’s production will be a necessity in a game where buckets should come few and far between.
In the frontcourt, graduate student forward Jayden Gardner and junior forward Kadin Shedrick will need to continue their stellar play on both ends of the court. The duo will certainly have their hands full with Walker and Roberts, but they’ve handled similar challenges already this season with impressive poise.
Off the bench, graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas has usurped senior center Francisco Caffaro for much of the second unit’s frontcourt minutes. Vander Plas brings a dangerous element from behind the arc, but will need to provide more than the one three-pointer he’s connected on in his last eight attempts.
Freshman guards Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn round out the rotation for Coach Tony Bennett, and anything the Cavaliers can get from the young pair could go a long way towards continuing their run at perfection.
All in all, fans should expect a wire-to-wire contest in which each team will make the other work tirelessly for every point they can get. While that style of basketball may not provide the most explosive offensive output, the likely high-octane finale of this one will make up for it and more. The home crowd in John Paul Jones Arena may prove to be the difference.
The game is set for tipoff at 2 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2.