|Michigan, Houston a battle of ... bulldogs?|
Saturday night's NCAA Tournament third-round game in the West region between Michigan and Houston might be a battle between the Wolverines and Cougars, but it also figures to serve as a great matchup between two figurative bulldogs on the court.
A big reason why third-seeded Michigan and No. 6 seed Houston have been as hot as any teams around the country over the past couple months has been because the play of Michigan sophomore guard Zavier Simpson and Houston senior guard Rob Gray, two tenacious players who haven't backed down from anyone this season.
The two will likely be guarding each other a lot, and whichever one gets the better of the matchup will likely determine which team advances to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.
Gray turned in the individual performance of the tournament thus far on Thursday when he scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup with two seconds remaining, against San Diego State to give the Cougars a 67-65 victory.
"This is what I live for," Gray said after the San Diego State win. "You know, I've been from junior college to Houston just working. Working my tail off with my teammates from summer conditioning to doing war drills in practice, and I just didn't want to let my team down."
Gray hasn't done that, leading the Cougars in scoring at nearly 20 points a game.
Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson didn't mince words at what Gray meant to his team against San Diego State.
"The difference in this game (Thursday) is we had Rob Gray and they didn't," Sampson said.
Houston (27-8) has won 11 of its last 13 games.
However, in order to have a similar impact against Michigan, Gray will have to conquer what might be his biggest challenge of the year to date.
A sophomore for Michigan, Simpson has evolved into one of the country's top on-the-ball defenders and has a lot to do with Michigan's 10-game winning streak, shutting down some of the best guards in the Big Ten.
Simpson has also gotten more comfortable running pick-and-roll sets for Michigan on offense and creating open shots for teammates.
"I saw (Gray) had (almost) 40 so he's got to be a good player," Simpson told the Detroit Free Press. "So we'll make sure we're locked in, recover and get back to the drawing board."
Michigan (29-7) is coming off a grind-it-out 61-47 win on Thursday over Montana, a game which saw the Wolverines take control after falling behind 10-0 to start.
"I love the way they stayed composed during that time," Michigan head coach John Beilein said. "The first four-minute timeout, the first one, it didn't look good for Michigan at that time. I told them all we need is one basket here, and then let's win the next four minutes. And we did that. And let's win the next four minutes, and we did that. And all of a sudden we're ahead at the half."
The game will be a battle between not only two scorching hot teams, but two of the stiffest defensively in the country.
Michigan enters the game No. 3 in the country in defensive efficiency and Houston is No. 15.