Cleveland State vs Houston NCAA Basketball Preview

CJ Walker #13 of the Ohio State Buckeyes is fouled by D'Moi Hodge #55 of the Cleveland State Vikings. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images/AFP
CJ Walker #13 of the Ohio State Buckeyes is fouled by D’Moi Hodge #55 of the Cleveland State Vikings. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images/AFP

Looking to become just the ninth No. 15 to beat a No. 2, the Cleveland State Vikings tangle with the Houston Cougars in what is expected to be a March Madness contest that is all about defense.

Cleveland State Vikings vs. Houston Cougars

Friday, March 19, 2021 – 7:15 PM EDT at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall

Ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP, Houston beat those expectations with a 24-3 campaign and somewhat quietly moving all the way up to No. 6 in the two most recent editions of the polls. The Cougars finished percentage points behind Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference regular season standings, then won 3-straight last weekend to earn their first league tourney title since winning the Conference USA event in 2010. Cleveland State tied Wright State for the Horizon League regular season crown, earning the Vikings a bye into the semifinals of the conference tournament where they claimed the title with successive wins.

Cougars 1-4 O/U Last Five NCAA Tourney Tilts

It has been 42 years since old Assembly Hall in Bloomington last hosted an NCAA Tournament game, the venue part of the Mideast Region that season which included just 40 teams in the bracket. This one is on the truTV broadcast docket, and FanDuel has Houston installed as 20½-point chalk with a 135-point total that leans slightly to the ‘under.’

Of the eight teams dancing with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, Houston seems to be the one drawing the least attention. That’s probably alright with Kelvin Sampson and his Cougars, who will be looking for their 25th win in this game, a mark that was last reached by the 1991-92 UH squad that was led by Bo Outlaw and Sam Mack.

Nobody is going to confuse this group of Cougars with those Phi Slamma Jama teams from the early-80s, especially on offense. But then, this Houston team got here with a smothering defense that is second in the country in scoring (58.3 ppg) and first in shooting (37.6%). That defense was largely responsible for the Cougars covering the NCAAB lines in 18 of their 26 lined contests. Houston had it going on both ends of the floor in the AAC Championship last weekend, a 91-54 romp past Cincinnati in a wire-to-wire victory that saw the Cougars shoot better than 56% and hold the Bearcats under 28% from the field.

Vikings Have Covered Last Four Neutral Site Games

Dennis Gates and the Vikings enjoyed a similar performance in the Horizon League title tilt.

Online bookmakers installed Cleveland State as modest 2½-point chalk over Oakland, and the Vikings took the lead for good midway through the first half before posting an 80-69 final. The Vikings hit 36-of-70 field goals (51.4%) while holding the Grizzlies to 34.4% (21-61) from the field, and didn’t hurt themselves by committing just seven turnovers.

The knock on Cleveland State is being a bad 3-point squad, making less than 32% (258th nationally) and jacking it up from outside too often with that success/failure rate. There is no knock on the Vikings defensively, however. Tre Gomillion leads a talented backcourt of defenders, and was selected Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, while forward Deante Johnson also made the All-HL Defensive Team.

Can Cleveland State Become 9th No. 15 Seed to Beat a No. 2?

This is the first-ever meeting between the Vikings and Cougars, and neither has a lot of history of taking on foes from their respective conferences. The last Horizon League team Houston took on was Oakland in November 2011, and the Cougars were embarrassed in a 76-74 loss that didn’t even make the college basketball betting board. Prior to that, it was a win at home over IUPUI in November 1998. Cleveland State last met AAC teams early in the 2017-18 season when the Vikings dropped road games at East Carolina and Cincinnati about a month apart.

In the 16 matchups between Nos. 2 and 15 seeds from 2016-19, only one of the 15s managed to win outright. That happened in 2016 when Middle Tennessee State busted a lot of brackets with a 90-81 takedown of Michigan State. Spreads in the last 16 clashes between 2/15 have run from 14-21, with favorites covering eight, underdogs grabbing the cash in seven, plus one push.

Being married to a UH alum, I’ll have to play it cool watching this one and not show my hand. An outright upset isn’t in the cards for the Vikings, but I’ll gladly take the points with my free NCAAB pick with my crystal ball showing a 76-60 final in the Cougars’ favor.

NCAAB Pick: Cleveland State +20½ (-110) at FanDuel

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