Celebrate, Houston. The Cougars are back in the Final Four of the men's NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1984.
It's an achievement for Kelvin Sampson, who is taking his second school to the national semifinals, and for the players responsible for rebuilding a program that was once great in the 1960s and 1980s but fell on hard times after the disbanding of the Southwest Conference.
Now for the cold water. We don't have any idea how Houston stands up to the other title contenders. This was statistically the easiest trip to the Final Four for any team since the field expanded to 64. Never has a team defeated four double-digit seeds on its way to winning the semifinals.
The road was No. 15 Cleveland State, No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 12 Oregon State. The last of the four turned out to be a 67-61 win Monday.
DeJon Jarreau and the Houston Cougars are headed to the Final Four. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)
It isn't the Cougars' fault. You play whomever is in front of you. They couldn't control losses by No. 1 seed Illinois or No. 3 West Virginia that would have provided a litmus test for the American Athletic regular-season and tournament champions.
Yes, three of the four tournament opponents were from the Power Five, but Oregon State and Rutgers each finished in sixth place in their conferences, and Syracuse was eighth. They weren't the top of the league.
As impressive as Houston was against Oregon State and Syracuse, it's easy to forget those games might not have happened if the Cougars hadn't rallied in the final minute against Rutgers in the second round.
That's all behind them.
The challenge becomes much greater Saturday. The Cougars will face No. 1 seed Baylor in the semifinals. It will be their toughest test.
Does the easy path mean Houston can't win? Of course not. This is a team that has won 28 of its 31 games. Unfortunately, a win against Texas Tech was the lone marquee game in its non-conference schedule. The American is a good, but not great conference that sent only one other team – Wichita State – to the tournament.
Houston's strengths don't take a night off. The Cougars are second in scoring defense and first in field-goal percentage defense. It's just not easy to score against them.
Ranked sixth in rebounding margin, they attack misses ferociously, as evidenced by their 19 offensive rebounds against Oregon State. They also out-rebounded those three Power Five opponents by at least nine rebounds.
Houston has the benefit of a go-to star in Quentin Grimes, who can carry the team in crunch time. His go-ahead three with just more than three minutes left broke a tie with the Beavers, and the Cougars never trailed again.
Add to the mix Sampson's experience. He took Oklahoma to the Final Four in 2002, among his 17 tournament appearances. Baylor hasn't been there since 1950.
While upsets make the first and second rounds of the tournaments, the final weekend is usually reserved for the best teams. That's what we want to see. Looking forward to seeing how the Cougars meet the challenge.
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