BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Marcus Sasser thought his groin felt better, certainly good enough to give it a go in the NCAA Tournament.
The All-American guard started for the top-seeded Houston Cougars against No. 16 seed Northern Kentucky, and he certainly looked just fine sinking an early 3 pointer Thursday night.
But that was about it for the best player on a team expected to contend for a national championship.
Sasser managed only one other basket in under 14 minutes of playing time. And when the second half began, he was watching from the bench.
That's where he remained for the rest of the night.
“He said it felt funny,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “So he shut it down, which is the right thing to do.”
Now, one of the biggest stars of March Madness is a huge question mark, and the Cougars could be in big trouble if he can't go in the second round Saturday.
Houston will be facing ninth-seeded Auburn, a team that is essentially playing at home in the first two rounds. The Tigers' campus is only about a two-hour drive from Legacy Arena in downtown Birmingham.
“I have a lot more pressing matters to worry about than that,” Sampson said of Auburn's home-court edge. “I need to see how many healthy bodies we have right now. That's probably our most important thing.”
Sampson also revealed that starting guard Jamal Shead has a sore knee. Shead still managed to play more than 36 minutes against the Norse, who hung around most of the game before the Cougars prevailed 63-52.
Clearly, the biggest concern is Sasser, who injured his groin in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament last weekend.
Sasser sat out the AAC championship game, and he was sorely missed when the Cougars (32-3) got knocked off by Memphis.
Despite the loss, Houston was still rewarded with a No. 1 seed.
Sasser took Monday and Tuesday off, and went through a light workout Wednesday.
Sasser and the Houston training staff thought the extra rest, combined with the treatment he received, left him healthy enough to play in the NCAA opener.
Sampson went nearly down to tipoff before deciding to send out his best player in the starting five.
“We have great trainers and I've been with Marcus for four years,” Sampson said. “I trust Marcus and I trust our trainers. I leave the decision up to them. Marcus knows his body better than anybody in this room, including me.
"I would have been fine if Marcus decided not to play tonight. But he wanted to give it a try. He thought it was a high enough percentage to 100 that he could go. But when he got out there, he didn't feel like he could.”
Sasser, who was averaging 17.1 points per game, became Houston's first selection to The Associated Press All-America first team since 1984.
He is a dynamic leader of the offense, and it was clear how much his absence meant as the Cougars struggled to put away Northern Kentucky.
Houston made only 4 of 16 from 3-point range.
“We didn't make an open 3 all night,” Sampson said. “That's the name of the game. When you've got an open look, you've got to put the biscuit in the basket. And we've got one of the best shooters in the country in Marcus Sasser.”
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