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Houston Cougars men’s basketball back in national rankings

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 08: Marcus Sasser #0 of the Houston Cougars reacts after a play during the first half during their game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Colonial Life Arena on December 08, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 08: Marcus Sasser #0 of the Houston Cougars reacts after a play during the first half during their game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Colonial Life Arena on December 08, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images) (2019 Jacob Kupferman)

HOUSTON – For the third consecutive year, the Houston men’s basketball team is back in the national rankings. The Cougars (14-4) are ranked No. 25 in The Associated Press and No. 24 in the USA Today coaches poll.

Baylor is ranked No. 1 on The Associated Press rankings.

After suffering their first conference loss to Tulsa, head coach Kelvin Sampson said he was “unhappy with the identity of the team.” Since then, Sampson changed their starting lineup, inserting the reigning American Athletic Conference sixth man of the year Dejon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser, Nate Hinton, Chris Harris Jr. and Fabian White Jr.

The team beat its in-state rival, SMU Mustangs, 71-62. Then traveled to Kansas and dominated No. 16 Wichita State 65-54 on Saturday.

When asked how he feels about his team’s identity, Sampson said, “I think it is getting better. We have good leaders. Our leaders have stepped up.”

On Thursday, Houston will host Connecticut at 8 p.m. on ESPNU.

“Obviously it’s a good thing to be ranked, it is a reward for all of your hard work during the season. We are not really paying any attention to it, we are just trying to keep going and doing the things that got us ranked: playing defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball,” Jarreau said.

Houston is tied for first place in the American Athletic Conference with Tulsa.

With success comes expectations. The Cougars were picked to repeat as American Athletic Conference champions this season. With the addition of being back in the Top 25, Jarreau said he knows from experience that there will be an extra target on their back now.

“As the defending champs, it (was) a target on our back from the get-go. So, now, being ranked, people are going to really try their hardest to beat a ranked team. So it is going to be ten times harder for us now, we just have to stay on our A-game,” Jarreau said.