That backfired in spectacular fashion.
Just five days after Marcus Sasser strained his groin in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals, he was back in the Cougars’ starting lineup Thursday night. For a first-round game against a No. 16 team.
In a surprise to pretty much no one, Sasser didn’t even make it to halftime. Now top-seeded Houston might not make it to the second weekend, let alone to the Final Four in its hometown.
“I trust Marcus and I trust our trainer. I leave those (playing) decisions up to them,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “He wanted to give it a try because he thought he was at a high enough percentage to go.”
Sampson is the coach. It’s his job to make decisions in the best interest of his team. Sampson is also the adult. It’s his responsibility to step in when a teenager or 20-something is about to do something reckless or naive.
He failed in both cases. And the Cougars might pay for his gobsmacking stupidity with their title aspirations.
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Sasser said the decision on whether he plays Saturday will depend on how much pain he can tolerate. Even if he does play, there’s no guaranteeing how long he’ll last – in that game or any others. If there are any others.
Houston needs Sasser to make a deep run in the tournament. He’s the AAC player of the year, and he leads Houston by averaging more than 17 points a game.
But the Cougars did not need Sasser in a game against a No. 16 seed.
For those who need a refresher, like Sampson apparently, a 16 seed has beaten a No. 1 just once since the men’s tournament began seeding teams more than 40 years ago. As pesky as Northern Kentucky was, the odds of the Norse beating Houston were infinitesimally small. Certainly smaller than the odds of Sasser tweaking his groin, an injury that is famously slow to heal and just as easy to aggravate.
Sure enough, with less than 90 seconds left in the first half, Sasser limped to the Houston bench. He looked pained just sliding over on the seat, and Houston trainers quickly rewrapped his leg. When the Cougars came out for the second half, Sasser was in warmups.
He had “aggravated his groin injury,” the school said. The pain was “about a seven,” Sasser said afterward.
“I didn’t know Marcus was going to play this morning,” Sampson said. “And I’d have been fine if he had not played.”
So why did he?
Of course Sasser wanted to play Thursday night. Any athlete would, and that goes double for a senior who missed last year’s NCAA tournament because of an injury. That’s why people with clearer heads needed to prevail.
Sasser didn’t play in the AAC tournament final, and Sampson said he wasn’t able to practice Monday or Tuesday. I don’t care if trainers, physicians and witch doctors were working on Sasser 24/7, you don’t risk him in a game with these low stakes.
Especially when you know next up is a frenetic Auburn squad that’s going to have home-court advantage. Saturday night’s second-round game between Houston and the Tigers will be in Birmingham, Alabama, a mere 2 hours from Auburn’s campus.
“Good for them. That’s a great break,” Sampson said. “We’ve got a lot more pressing matters to worry about than that. We’ve got to go see how many healthy bodies we have right now.”
And whose fault is that?
Had Sasser sat out Thursday night, he’d have had an entire week to recuperate before the Auburn game. Now he’ll be limited, at best.
Houston and Sasser have had a terrific run this season, one that seemed destined to take them back to the Final Four. That’s not likely to happen now, and the Cougars have no one to blame but themselves.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
Houston gambled by playing Marcus Sasser. It may cost Cougars a … – USA TODAY
That backfired in spectacular fashion.