NCAA N Kentucky Houston Basketball

Houston guard Marcus Sasser brings the ball up duirng the first half of the team's first-round college basketball game against Northern Kentucky in the men's NCAA Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, March 16, 2023.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For top-seeded Houston, any hope of winning a national title may come down to Marcus Sasser’s ailing groin.

The All-American guard pulled himself out of a hard-fought victory over 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky at the NCAA Tournament, and his status was unknown for a second-round game Saturday against Auburn.

“It’s up to me really,” Sasser said late Thursday. “Just however much pain I can handle.”

Coach Kelvin Sampson didn’t express any regrets about starting Sasser five days after he injured his groin in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, saying he left the decision in the hands of the training staff and his star player.

There was no immediate update on Sasser’s condition Friday before the Cougars held their scheduled media availability. They also were set to hold a closed practice at Legacy Arena.

Sasser didn’t sound all that hopeful after playing less than 14 minutes against Northern Kentucky. He scored five points — well below his team-leading 17.1 average — and didn’t return after halftime.

“I reaggravated my injury again by playing a little too hard,” he said. “The pain is around a seven out of 10.”

Sampson conceded that the Cougars are a different team when they don’t have Sasser leading the way in the backcourt.

That was evident in the way Houston struggled against Northern Kentucky, which came in as an 18 1/2-point underdog but was tied with the Cougars five minutes into the second half.

Houston (32-3) eventually pulled away for a 63-52 victory, but it hardly looked like a team that can make a deep run in the tournament without Sasser.

“The team we had on the floor is not the team we played (most) times this year,” Sampson said. “Everybody kind of shifts around and you have to reassign roles, all that stuff.”

Sasser was injured last Saturday in an AAC semifinal victory over Cincinnati. He didn’t play the following day in the conference championship game, merely watching as the Cougars were upset by Memphis.

Sasser got the next two days off, and only did a light workout the day before the NCAA opener. Shortly before tipoff against Northern Kentucky, he was announced as a starter.

In retrospect, it seemed like the wrong move.

“He said he felt funny,” Sampson said. “I would have been fine if Marcus had decided not to play. But he wanted to give it a try because he thought he was at a high enough percentage of 100 that he could. So obviously he got out there and didn’t feel like he could, so he shut it down, which is the right thing to do.”

Sasser isn’t the only hurting Houston player. Starting guard Jamal Shead is bothered by a sore knee, though he was able to play 36 minutes against the Norse.

If Sasser can’t go, freshman Emanuel Sharp likely will play a much bigger role against Auburn.

Sharp came off the bench to hit a couple of big 3-pointers that helped the Cougars fend off Northern Kentucky.

Sharp finished with 10 points in 22 minutes of playing time, one of four Houston players to score in double figures.

“A win doesn’t have to be pretty as long as you win at the end of the day,” Sasser said. “My brothers had my back and I’m really proud of them.”

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