Houston Basketball star Marcus Sasser has enough to worry about going into a Round of 32 NCAA Tournament matchup with Auburn on Saturday. Now, he must also mentally prepare himself for a Tigers-leaning crowd in Birmingham, Alabama’s Legacy Arena.

Sasser and teammate Jamal Shead have already announced their intent to play despite battling groin and knee injuries, respectively. The No. 1 seeded Cougars survived a test from Northern Kentucky Thursday, but are still very much vulnerable heading into the weekend. Head coach Kelvin Sampson established Houston basketball into one of the most well-rounded teams in the country.

While they miss out on the hoopla reserved for Power Five elites like Kansas and Duke, they can never be described a s a “paper tiger” during March Madness. Sasser is a big reason why. He was a key part of their Final Four appearance in 2021, but missed most of last season with injury. The cougars still found their way to the Elite Eight but were in desperate need of offensive firepower against Villanova.

A healthy Sasser could mean the difference this year. He is focused on the upcoming challenge first, though, which he says will have to be perceived differently than normal.

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“We’re gonna treat it like a road game,” Sasser said via Mark Berman of Fox 26.

In addition to a sea of orange in the stands, Houston will have a stingy 3-point defense to contend with (28.7 percent allowed). Sasser is the team’s best sharpshooter at over 38 percent, but his groin injury could limit his accuracy. Great defense and low turnover rate are Houston hallmarks and will need to be on full display for the program to reach the second week.

If they survive this battle and a couple more, Sasser can look forward to the Cougars having their own hometown advantage in NRG Stadium for the Final Four. Heartbreak has been a part of this program’s history for too long. Perhaps they’re due for a couple of lucky breaks.

The basketball gods have already made it so Sasser and Shead will play versus Auburn. The rest might be up to them.