While avenging their lone loss of the season, the No. 8 Houston Cougars looked every bit like the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference with their dominating showing against Tulsa.
The Cougars throttled the Golden Hurricane 86-59 on Wednesday at home, erasing the memory of their one-point loss at Tulsa in late December. Houston (12-1, 7-1 American) will now prep for a quick turnaround against a surprise opponent, replacing a home game against Cincinnati on its schedule with Temple on Saturday in Philadelphia.
In what was arguably their best performance against a conference foe, the Cougars made 13 of 32 3-pointers, posted a 52-24 rebound advantage and outscored Tulsa 26-7 in second-chance points. Houston has been strong all season, but now looks the part of a national title contender by having created distance from the roster attrition that could have undermined its success.
"As the season goes along ... everybody kind of settles into a role, and we're doing that now," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Our team is starting to figure out their roles, and that takes time. This team could have Nate Hinton, this team could have Fabian White, this team could have Caleb Mills. So we've had to make adjustments all the way from the summer to the fall to the winter. We're still making adjustments."
The same could be said of Temple (3-3, 2-3), which has won back-to-back games and matured from its first meeting against the Cougars this season, a 76-50 setback on Dec. 22. Sampson said the comparison of the Owls from then to now is "night and day," an assessment likely tied to the fact Temple was playing just its second game when it previously faced Houston.
"I think we've taken baby steps in getting better with some things," Temple coach Aaron McKie said. "It was our second game and we got thrown into the deep end ... of the ocean early on in the season. And I came away from that game -- and we got our butts kicked -- saying this was great for our inexperienced guys and our younger guys to get that experience playing against a team that has been playing together for such a long time and is ranked in the top 10.
"I'm optimistic that we're a better team at this point. We haven't played as many games and I wish that we could have played more games going into this, but this is our reality."
Part of that reality was the abrupt rescheduling of the Cougars. Temple was set to face Cincinnati on Jan. 20 but instead moved its game against Houston originally scheduled for Feb. 10.
"It becomes more about you," McKie said. "And what I try to express to the guys and my staff is it's not who you're playing, it's how you're playing. And we totally understand with this team here it's not going to be about X's and O's, if you look at their numbers. It's going to be a tough man contest.
"It's going to be about who wants it more, and those guys have demonstrated that they've wanted it more than their opponents throughout the season. We have to match that intensity and that toughness."
--Field Level Media