There’s a lot of buzz going on at Cullen Boulevard and it’s the Houston Cougars basketball team is the center of it. After a largely successful 24-6 season, the No. 21 ranked team will now head to the Big Dance, playing the role of this year’s underdog darling of the NCAA Tournament. It has been awhile since they’ve won a tourney game but things could change, take a look.
The Houston Cougars are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, where Tom Penders in his last season as the head coach of the basketball team was able steer the team to a berth. It was an incredibly over-achieving team at the time, having catching the heat toward the end of the season and eventually to win the American Athletic Conference tournament.
It was on the heels of their dynamic scorer in Aubrey Coleman, and although they bowed out of the first-round to the Maryland Terrapins 89-77, it was first time the team had made the tourney in 18 years.
But things are mightily different now. Kelvin Sampson, a seasoned coach at all levels was tasked on rebuilding the basketball program when he took over the reins in 2014. He had just finished a stint as an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets but in the back of my mind, I knew that he wanted another shot at building a winner out of his own image.
He has done certainly done that year-to-date. With each season, he has delivered teams that have continued to improve and finally this year’s roster is one he can be the most proud of. I haven’t seen a Houston Cougars’ team play as good of defense as I’ve seen this season and it’s as if they’re motivated to do it well. This is the hallmark of a Sampson-coached team and it’s truly inspiring to watch.
It was also evident when they were able to down Top 25 teams such as Wichita State and
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Cincinnati, two teams they also faced in this year’s AAC tourney. Although they weren’t as triumphant in yesterday’s 56-55 loss to the Bearcats, the Coogs are in and they still have an opportunity to make their mark.
They’ve been doing with leading scorer Rob Gray (18.5 PPG), All-AAC Conference first team member, along with the offensive/defensive prowess of Galen Robinson Jr. and the super-punch of Armoni Brooks off the bench. He’s the AAC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year. Let’s also not forget the gritty efforts of Corey Davis Jr. as well as Fabian White Jr., who made the All-Conference rookie team this past season.
But all in all, this team has what it takes to win their first tournament game since 1984. Yep, it hasn’t been since the Phi Slamma Jamma days since they’ve been able to advance to the next round. I’d certainly indicate that would be the short-term goal for this team and they can build from there throughout the tourney.
They’ll match up with San Diego State, who’s riding high off 82-75 magical win over New Mexico to win the Mountain West tourney and to get a berth to the dance. Although an AAC trophy would’ve been nice, it’s good to know they were just one defensive play away from earning one.
The Houston Cougars take on the Aztecs this Thursday in Wichita at Intrust Bank Arena. Tip-off for the first-rounder is scheduled for 6:20 p.m. CDT and will be televised on TBS and broadcast on KPRC 950 AM.