Houston's March Madness hopes may come down to Sasser health

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Houston guard Marcus Sasser brings the ball up duirng the first half of the team's first-round college basketball game against Northern Kentucky in the men's NCAA Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – For top-seeded Houston, any hope of winning a national title may come down to Marcus Sasser’s ailing groin.

Not to worry, Sasser said Friday.

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He's definitely playing in the Cougars' next NCAA Tournament game.

“It's not a game-time decision no more," Sasser said, sitting at his locker in Legacy Arena, the same spot where the outlook seemed so much bleaker less than 24 hours earlier. “I feel great. I feel good. I feel normal.”

The All-American guard pulled himself out of a hard-fought victory over 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky in the March Madness opener, casting serious doubts on his status for a second-round game Saturday against Auburn.

Especially when Sasser said afterward that the pain felt "around a seven out of 10.”

But the groin felt better before he went to bed. When he awoke, it seemed just fine.

Sasser now wonders if he was being a little too cautious because he didn’t want to risk a more serious problem.

“When I first woke up, I walked around and I didn't feel no pain," he said. “I was like, ‘I’m going for sure.'"

But Sasser conceded that the high stakes of the game certainly had an impact on his decision. He probably would've considered sitting out, just to be on the safe side, if this was a meaningless contest in December.

Groin injuries can be notoriously tricky when trying to determine if an athlete is fully recovered, which prompts trainers to be especially mindful to the risk of reinjury.

“This a win-or-go-home game,” Sasser said. “I'm going to go out and give it my all. You really don't know when your last game is. Plus, this is my last year of college, so I definitely want to go out with a bang.”

Coach Kelvin Sampson didn't express any regrets about starting Sasser five days after he injured his groin in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, saying he left the decision in the hands of the training staff and his star player.

“It’s not the first injury I’ve dealt with,” Sampson said. “I deal with his injury like I’ve dealt with every injury of any kid we’ve had for 34 years. It’s up to him and the trainer. I don’t make any decisions. They say, ‘Why did you play him?’ I didn’t. I play him if he’s healthy, if the trainer thinks he can go and the kid thinks he can go. I trust Marcus.”

Sasser didn't sound all that hopeful after playing less than 14 minutes against Northern Kentucky. He scored five points — well below his team-leading 17.1 average — and didn't return after halftime.

He said the pain returned in his groin when he went up on a jumper, the last of only three five shots he attempted on the night.

Sampson said it will be up to Sasser to determine how many minutes he plays against Auburn.

“He’s our best player, I know that,” Sampson said. “But I don’t treat him any different than I treat anybody else if they’re injured. '

Point guard Jamal Shead said he didn't have any doubts that Sasser would be ready to play against Auburn.

“I was pretty confident he'd play. It's win or go home now, and he's a tough dude,” said Shead, who has been bothered by a sore knee. “If this was our last game together and he didn't play, that would haunt him a little bit.”

Sampson conceded that the Cougars are a different team when they don't have Sasser leading the way in the backcourt.

That was evident in the way Houston struggled against Northern Kentucky, which came in as an 18 1/2-point underdog but was tied with the Cougars five minutes into the second half.

Houston (32-3) eventually pulled away for a 63-52 victory, but it hardly looked like a team that can make a deep run in the tournament without Sasser.

“The team we had on the floor is not the team we played (most) times this year," Sampson said. “Everybody kind of shifts around and you have to reassign roles, all that stuff.”

Sasser was injured last Saturday in an AAC semifinal victory over Cincinnati. He didn't play the following day in the conference championship game, merely watching as the Cougars were upset by Memphis.

Sasser got the next two days off, and only did a light workout the day before the NCAA opener. Shortly before tipoff against Northern Kentucky, he was announced as a starter.

In retrospect, it seemed like the wrong move.

But Sasser felt it was important to get back on the court as soon as possible, "just to have that game feeling again.”

“I felt like it was a positive and a negative,” he said. “I was back out there on the court, moving again, moving full speed, and it kind of gave me confidence for tomorrow's game.”

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