HOUSTON (AP) — Marcus Sasser weighed many factors in deciding whether to return for his senior season at Houston.
The chance that he could lead the top-ranked Cougars to their first national title at home, with the Final Four being played in Houston, made his decision to come back much easier.
“That was a big factor because that’s once in a lifetime, that really doesn’t happen where the national championship is in your city and it’s like you’re playing the national championship at home,” he told The Associated Press. “So, I feel like that would be one of the best moments in college basketball really.”
Houston reclaimed the top spot in the AP men’s college basketball poll on Monday after winning seven straight, capped by a 72-64 victory over Memphis on Sunday, when Sasser scored 20 points.
The preseason AP All-America selection leads Houston (25-2, 13-1 American) by averaging 16.7 points a game. Sasser has made a strong comeback this season after suffering a season-ending foot injury just 12 games into the 2021-22 season.
Sasser is rounding into form after saying he didn’t really feel like himself until about 10 games into this season after sitting out for so long. Though he couldn’t play for most of last season, he tried to stay engaged with the team in other ways.
“It was hard,” he said. “I always wanted to be out there with them, but I just feel like it made me learn basketball from a different way,” he said. “I couldn’t be out there, so I tried to turn a negative to a positive really. And I did that by just watching a lot of film, seeing the game from a different perspective.”
Coach Kelvin Sampson spoke about Sasser’s development from when he joined the program in 2019 until now. The veteran coach, who has led a remarkable resurgence at the school, said the most important way in which he’s grown is his confidence.
But from the moment he met the guard, he knew that he would be a good fit for his program.
“There’s just something about Marcus that I like,” Sampson said. “He had a quiet maturity about him.”
And it didn’t hurt that he was a good shooter, the kind of player that Sampson likes to stack his team with. Sasser is shooting 43% overall this season and is 37.4% on 3-pointers.
Though Sasser knows he’s a much better player than he was when he first arrived at Houston, he’s looking to take his game to another level as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
“I’m just staying in the gym 24/7," he said. “Working on the little details, that’s kind of a big thing. Because I feel like if you just look at the bigger picture and skip the details, then something’s going to be missing in your game. So that’s what I hang my hat on, it’s just details and getting better at the little things every day.”
This is the first season in which the Cougars have been ranked No. 1 since the Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler-led Phi Slama Jama team ended the regular season in the top spot in 1983. That year, Houston reached the Final Four for a second straight season before losing to North Carolina State 54-52 in the title game.
Sasser is well versed in the history of that team and has grown close to Olajuwon in his time at the school.
“One of the first things I knew about was the Phi Slama Jama teams when I came here,” he said. “So, the history was a big part of the reason I came here for real."
As he rounds out his college career, Sasser has helped the Cougars to heights not seen since those days. He was a starter during the 2020-21 season when Houston reached the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Baylor in the national semifinal.
The Cougars advanced to the Elite Eight last season despite losing Sasser in December.
On a recent day at the team’s training facility, Sasser wore a beanie he got during the team’s trip to the Final Four as he talked about Houston’s goal of getting there again.
But he doesn’t simply have designs on taking the Cougars that far. He wants to cap his career by helping this Houston squad accomplish what even those lauded Phi Slama Jama teams couldn’t.
Sasser wants to bring a championship to the school.
“It’s extra motivation to try to be better than them so they can tip their hats off to us,” he said. “They had a crazy run… so if we can get past them or even do something bigger than them, that’ll be big for us and this program. And for us to be a part of that would just be special for Houston.”
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25