Being ranked No. 1 isn't anything special for Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, at least at this stage of the season.
"I don't dwell on it," he said Saturday night after a 53-48 win over Saint Mary's in Fort Worth, Texas. "We'll have it until we lose, and we'll lose."
The Cougars return home for a nonconference contest with North Florida.
Houston (8-0) has struggled to score in three of its last four games. It managed 66 points on Nov. 20 in a 10-point win at Oregon, muddled its way to a 49-44 decision Nov. 26 against Kent State and then grinded out its test with the Gaels Saturday night.
But the Cougars are still unbeaten and atop the Top 25 heap because their defense never rests. Playing a well-disciplined and well-drilled St. Mary's team that runs precise halfcourt patterns, they forced 17 turnovers and limited it to 37 percent shooting from the field.
Through eight games, no one has scored more than Oregon's 56 points. Opponents are averaging only 48 points per game and making just over 30 percent of their field goal attempts, a number that dips to 21 percent on 3-pointers.
"I went into the game, I was like, 'I don't know how we're going to score,'" St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett said.
Houston's offense runs through senior guard Marcus Sasser, who averages 17.5 points and nearly two steals per game. Sasser departed with a left shoulder injury with 1:10 left against Saint Mary and his status for Tuesday's game is undetermined.
Sasser is dealing with pain in the shoulder but an MRI exam displayed no structural damage. After the contest Sasser popped the shoulder back into place, according to Sampson.
J'Wan Roberts adds 10.4 points and 7.0 rebounds, while Tramon Mark hits for 10.1 ppg. Point guard Jamal Shead runs the show nicely with an assist-turnover ratio of just over 3-1.
Sampson understood why his team struggled to score against St. Mary's, which traditionally plays tough, physical defense.
"When you get two really good defensive teams playing against each other, that's what it looks like," he said. "It had nothing to do with each team's offense."
As for North Florida (2-5), it is coming off a 93-88 loss Saturday at High Point. The Ospreys got a 22-point, 11-rebound performance from Carter Hendricksen, plus 17 points from leading scorer Jarius Hicklen (14.7 points per game).
But they struggled to get stops, which has been a theme of their early season play. North Florida has allowed nearly 81 points per game and their opponents have canned 45 percent of their field goals. High Point, which has only lost to unbeaten UNLV, sank 48 percent from the field and earned a 29-12 edge in made foul shots.
"We had great resiliency and continued to do the right things and fight, but there was no defense," said Ospreys coach Matthew Driscoll. "But I'm really excited about what's ahead for us. We have a chance against No. 1."
North Florida bills itself as the Birds of Trey, because it has built its team around the 3-point shot. It's off to a slow start from the arc, making just 59 of 202 (29.2 percent) in the first seven games.
This will be the first meeting between the Ospreys and Cougars.
--Field Level Media