Houston chasing history in NCAA matchup with Michigan
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Kelvin Sampson cares very little that Houston won its first NCAA Tournament game this week since the Phi Slama Jama days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. nearly 35 year ago.
He might care a little bit more about the historical ramifications.
The last time the Cougars triumphed in March Madness, that team coached by Guy Lewis and led by Olajuwon — and featuring fellow first-round draft picks Greg Anderson and Michael Young — romped all the way to the Final Foul before losing to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the title game.
“I wasn’t here in 1984. I’ve been here since 2014,” said Sampson, who has been to the Final Four himself with Oklahoma. “We’re 1-for-1. Why do you have to keep bringing up ’84?
“I don’t know if thinking about how many we won since 1984 comes into play,” he said. “We’re 40 minutes away from going to the Sweet 16. We won 27 games this year. It’s been a long time but you know, if I’d been here since ’84, I’d be on my fifth job by now. I’d have been fired long ago. We built this thing to where we’re back at the tournament. That’s what is significant.”
To reach the next round in Los Angeles, the sixth-seeded Cougars must follow their heart-stopping win over San Diego State with a victory over No. 3 seed Michigan on Saturday night.
It’s a matchup of two teams with proud but often-overlooked traditions. Yes, the Wolverines have been to the NCAA Tournament eight times under John Beilein, with a now-controversial runner-up finish in 2013, but few people identify Michigan when they run down college basketball powers.
They probably should. The Wolverines romped to a second straight Big Ten title a couple weeks ago, winning four games in four days, and showed gritty resolve in beating Montana in the first round.
“They play in a really good league. A lot of high-powered offenses. To be on a 10-game win streak, they’re doing a lot of things right,” said Houston star Rob Gray, who poured in 39 points against the Aztecs, including the wind-milling go-ahead layup with 1.1 seconds in the game.
“We just have to come out and be the more desperate team.”
Should be easy to do for a program that has spent several decades in the morass.
The program began to backtrack after the Phi Slama Jama days, and the Cougars were left out of the big leagues when the Southwest Conference collapsed. They were rarely terrible, despite churning through coaches, but never reached the same status that Lewis had them in during the early 1980s.
They hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament at all since 2010, when Tom Penders guided them there.
It took the arrival of Sampson three years ago, and slow and steady growth, to finally reach the same heights. He brought together a collection of hard-scrabble recruits, junior college transfers and kids looking for another chance, and he molded them into a team that exudes toughness.
“I think we’ve played two times, one when I was West Virginia coach, we had a Sweet 16 team against Oklahoma, and then again like two years later, when he came to Indiana,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “We’ve had good games, both times. We might have split those.
“We have another great matchup coming tomorrow.”
Even if Sampson is reluctant to discuss the historical ramifications of it, his players seem to have a keen appreciation. Gray talks regularly with former Houston great Elvin Hayes, and the transfer from tiny Howard College has grown to appreciate how much the Cougars’ success means back home.
“It’ll mean a lot to the fan base, the alumni and everyone that’s affiliated with the basketball program. We’ve been battling all year for them, and to make the tournament, I know they feel real good about that,” he said. “But we’re looking to do a little bit more than that. We want to make a run, make some noise. And we believe in ourselves, and we’re just thankful that we have this opportunity.”
REMATCH IN BOISE: Ohio State’s focus when the 68-team bracket came out was on its opening game against South Dakota State, as it should have been. But the Buckeyes couldn’t help but notice what could be in store for their second game, should they win: Gonzaga.
“The whole team is excited for this one,” Ohio State guard Kam Williams said. “We’ve been wanting this matchup ever since the bracket came out. Hopefully, when they take the court they’ll feel us, because they didn’t feel us in the first game.”
The first game, late November in the PK80 Invitational, was a no contest. Gonzaga had its way with the Buckeyes, shooting 59 percent while holding Ohio State to 35 percent in an 86-59 rout.
The Buckeyes have improved a great deal since then.
Picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten, Ohio State won 24 games during the regular season and finished second behind Michigan State in its first season under coach Chris Holtmann. The Buckeyes lost to Penn State in their Big Ten Tournament opener, but beat South Dakota State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to earn a rematch against the Zags.
“We watched them as they ran through that Big Ten almost to the last week of the season, and they did a great job of getting them to believe and really come together,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They seem like they’re really connected. We know it’s going to be really tough, physical.”
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