BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Tramon Mark sat in his locker inside Legacy Arena, preparing for another day of practice before the last big game on the schedule.
If all sounds familiar, it should be for Mark, who returned to the NCAA Tournament after a torn lip forced him out of last season’s Elite Eight run.
And just like moments before, the University of Houston, seeded no.
“If I have to step up even more than I need to, I can,” Mark said. “I am confident in myself and confident in my teammates. Whatever we have to do to win the game, I feel like I’ll do it.”
The bumped Cougars (32-3) will play ninth-seeded Auburn (21-12) at 6:10 p.m. on Saturday, needing a win to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in a row.
Last time Mark played in the second round he made one of UH’s greatest NCAA moments in three decades. As a freshman in 2021, Mark’s prompting in the final seconds helped the Cougars beat Rutgers and eventually reach the Final Four.
“Without his offensive rebound and his hitting back, we’re sitting at home pretty early,” said assistant coach Kellen Sampson. “He’s already arrived at the moment in his career and Saturday will be no different.”
Two years later, Mark said the experience will pay huge dividends with the Cougars likely to be calling his name more due to lingering issues in Sasser (groin) and Shead (knee). Both guards said Friday they will play against Auburn.
“I definitely feel like I’ve been here,” Mark said. “I have good experience, the grit to get the job done at the end of the day for this team. I am confident and comfortable on the floor. As long as my teammates are with me and I am with my teammates, we will be fine.”
Mark has been described as the ‘X factor’ by team mates for his ability to rise to any occasion. He can score. He can recover. He can defend himself. Just like the first half of the regular season finale in Memphis when the Cougars attacked Mark. He answered with 14 of his 16 points in the first half as the Cougars won 67-65 on Shead’s buzzer.
For the season, Mark averaged 9.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a starter in all 35 games.
“He really is our ‘X factor,'” Shead said. “When he leaves he makes us 10x better.”
Since he shared a backcourt with Sasser, a first-team All-American, and Shead, the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, Mark sometimes went unnoticed. But not to his teammates.
“He’s a great scorer, a great rebounder,” Sasser said. “He He just doesn’t get the credit for it. He makes a lot of winning plays. It’s something we all look up to in the Houston family. He’s part of our culture, making winning games, and that’s something he does a lot.
Depending on how much Sasser and Shead can play, Sampson said the rest of UH’s guard rotation, which includes Emanuel Sharp and Terrance Arceneaux, will be asked to do more.
“Now we’re moving some things on the fly, we have to ask Tramon Mark, ‘What do you know al [point guard spot] if Jamal needs a break?’ There is no attitude from me, poor, pitiful us here. We have a lot of guys who can do it. They just have to do.
That moment comes on Saturday.
Mark swears he’s ready.
“He’s a director,” Sampson said. “He did it all year, especially in the big games. That’s what Saturday is. It’s a great game, a great opportunity. Everyone will have to do more and participate.
“We are still fighting. It was proved last year. We are never out of action. We never finished.