Wahoo Preview: No. 2 Virginia vs. No. 5 Houston

By Scott Ratcliffe

Marcus Sasser (Photo: University of Houston Athletics)

The wait is almost over for Saturday’s highly anticipated top-5 matchup between No. 2 Virginia and No. 5 Houston, as tip off at John Paul Jones Arena is less than 24 hours away.

The Cavaliers (8-0) and Cougars (10-1) will square off in a defensively charged heavyweight bout at 2 p.m. for just the eighth all-time meeting (ESPN2).

Houston blew UVA’s doors off in a lopsided 67-47 affair in the Wahoos’ third game last season, as Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin were just getting their feet wet with the team after transferring from East Carolina and Indiana, respectively.

The Cougars, meanwhile, were ranked No. 15 in the country and featured a senior-laden group that resembled a well-oiled machine, as the Hoos got behind early and never could get back in it.

Fast forward to Saturday, when UVA will have its entire starting roster back and ready to roll — that is, depending on the status of Reece Beekman. The junior point guard played just 3 minutes and 47 seconds in Virginia’s last win over James Madison on Dec. 6, and is considered day-to-day heading into Saturday’s showdown with Houston. Beekman and the Cavaliers have had more than a week to rest, heal and get through exams, and fans will have to wait until pregame shootaround to see how things are looking in terms of his availability.

Houston lost four starters off of last year’s team, but are still in great shape with senior guard Marcus Sasser leading the charge. Sasser leads the team in scoring with 16.2 points per game, while freshman forward Jarace Walker has provided an immediate boost with 9.4 points and 6.5 rebounds a night. Three juniors are heavily involved as well, with point guard Jamal Shead registering team-bests of 5.7 assists and 2.4 steals per contest to go with 7.5 points, while 6-foot-5 Tramon Mark (9.3 ppg) and the team’s top rebounder, J’Wan Roberts (9.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), round out the starting five.

It will be a battle of two outstanding defenses, as Houston leads the country in scoring defense (49.4 points allowed per game) and field-goal percentage defense (31.6 percent), while forcing opponents into 16.4 turnovers per game. Virginia, by comparison, is 12th in scoring defense (57.9 ppg), 48th in field-goal percentage defense (39.4 percent) and forces 13.4 turnovers.

The Cougars began the season ranked No. 3 nationally and jumped up to No. 1 before falling to then-eighth-ranked Alabama at home last week, letting a 15-point, second-half lead slip away in the process for their lone defeat of the season.

Their other notable wins include Saint Mary’s (No. 17 in KenPom rankings), at Oregon (No. 43) and Kent State (No. 65).

The Hoos will hit the road for a trip to Miami on Tuesday, then will have another week off before finishing up nonconference play against Albany on Dec. 28 at JPJ.

For more on the UVA-Houston matchup, you can check out The Jerry Ratcliffe Show podcast with ESPN analyst Jay Bilas as he previews the contest, as well as a chat earlier in the week with UVA alum Ricky Stokes, who shared his memories of facing Houston in the 80s. You can also visit our basketball archives here for more coverage.