Is it the barbeque? Villanova’s Wright adds a regional title to his run of NCAA success in Texas

Villanova's Jermaine Samuels celebrates with teammates after being named the most valuable player. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels celebrates with teammates Saturday after being named the most valuable player in the South Regional. Villanova beat Houston, 50-44, and advanced to the Final Four. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Jay Wright, without a doubt, still calls Pennsylvania home.

He was born 60 years ago in Churchville, Pa., and he has worked for the past 21 years in Philadelphia as the head coach of the Villanova Wildcats.

Villanova coach Jay Wright. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova coach Jay Wright won NCAA titles in Houston in 2016 and in San Antonio in 2018. He added a regional crown on Saturday with a victory — in San Antonio, again — over the Houston Cougars. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Nonetheless, Wright’s affection for Texas continues to grow. After all, his Wildcats have stormed undefeated through six NCAA tournament games, two each on three trips into the state, over the past seven seasons.

Wright’s latest version of the Texas two-step came this week in San Antonio at the AT&T Center.

On Thursday night, Villanova downed the Michigan Wolverines in the Sweet 16. On Saturday afternoon, ‘Nova followed with a grind-it-out, 50-44 victory over the Houston Cougars, which clinched a South Regional championship and catapulted Wright past the Elite Eight and into next week’s Final Four in New Orleans.

In his other two visits to Texas, both of them to Final Four competitions, he won national championships in Houston in 2016 and in San Antonio in 2018. So, what is this all about, Coach Wright?

“I think barbecue,” he said in a deadpan reply. “I think we like barbecue. We love Texas. We really do. It’s always nice weather when we come down here. People are so friendly. I don’t know what to tell you.

“I don’t know what it is, man. We have played some great games down here against some really good teams, and we’ve come out on top.”

Forward Jermaine Samuels produced 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Caleb Daniels came off the bench for 12 points as the Wildcats out-battled the Cougars under extremely unusual circumstances.

The Wildcats survived and advanced in spite of adversity at every turn, namely a pro-Cougars crowd, 28.8 percent shooting from the field, 23.8 percent shooting from three and a glaring lack of offense from their two leading scorers.

Houston's Taze Moore gets the crowd going late in the game. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Taze Moore gets the crowd going late in the game. Moore led the Cougars with 15 points and 10 rebounds. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“I was proud of our guys,” Wright said. “Having experienced guys playing in that environment, like a true road game, them making a run, a really, really good team that you know can get on runs, and for (our players) to keep their composure and get a couple stops, hit big shots like Collin (Gillespie) did — having veteran players is the key to that, guys that have been in that moment before.”

Wright is thrilled to return to the Final Four, his fourth trip since taking over at Villanova in 2001.

“It feels great, man,” the coach said. “It feels great to be going back to the Final Four. It never gets old. It is a dream of every player and coach in college basketball. It’s the ultimate.

“We’re going to enjoy this. Tonight and tomorrow we’re going to enjoy this. We’re going to rest up, and then we’re going to get to work. We get to keep playing. That’s what we enjoy the most.”

South No. 2 seed Villanova (30-7) will play next Saturday in the national semifinals against either the Kansas Jayhaws or the Miami Hurricanes. In his heart, Wright knows that fifth-seeded Houston (32-6) could have been the team making the trip, and not his.

Villanova's Caleb Daniels puts up a shot. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Caleb Daniels puts up a shot against Houston. Daniels finished with 12 points and six rebounds off the bench. – Photo by Joe Alexander

After all, the Cougars were brilliant defensively.

Not only did they hold Justin Moore to eight points and Gillespie to six, they also battled for rebounds with such tenacity that one Wildcats player compared it to “a street fight” under the backboard.

In the end, though, the Cougars could not overcome their own offensive foibles, which included 29.8 percent shooting from the field and 5 percent (1 of 20) from three.

More painfully, many of the Cougars’ shots, particularly late in the game, were good looks.

“Teams that cry care,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “There was a lot of tears in that locker room, coaches and players. This team’s been through a lot this year. I knew it was going to take a good team to beat us. And a good team did.”

Villanova made only two field goals in the last five minutes, both of them critical to the Wildcats’ success. The first was by Gillespie and the other by Samuels.

After the Cougars cut what had been an 11-point Wildcats lead to two, Gillespie stalled the momentum when he pulled up for a 15-footer with five minutes remaining.

Villanova's Jermaine Samuels shoots around Houston's Fabian White Jr. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels shoots around Houston’s Fabian White, Jr. Samuels finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. He hit 6 of 10 from the field. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Later, with the clock at 1:25, Cougars point guard Jamal Shead sank a transition floater, and Sampson called time out to set up the full-court press. Villanova inbouded successfully, pushed it up court and found Samuels on a driving layup.

It settled into the net with 1:06 remaining for a 48-42 Villanova lead. On the other end, Sampson appeared to be motioning to one official that Samuels should have been called for carrying the ball on the dribble drive to the hoop.

Never mind the argument. As the Cougars pushed it back downcourt, they got the ball to Kyler Edwards, who was fouled and hit two free throws. Four-point game. Fifty nine seconds remaining. Houston still had a chance.

On the Wildcats’ next possession, they got it to Moore, who drove into the lane and then veered out of the paint to his right. Suddenly, he went down, injured, and had to come out of the game.

Houston had the ball on the turnover, going back the other way, and Cougars guard Taze Moore saw an opening to drive right to left across the lane. It was a shot he had made before. But this one hit backboard and then rimmed out.

Gillespie grabbed the ball and started up court, only to get fouled. He hit two free throws with 25.7 seconds left for the final points of the game.

“First of all, congratulations to Jay,” Sampson said. “Villanova, I think they represent college athletics at the highest level, the right way. They’ve got a really good team.

Villanova's Justin Moore drives around Houston's J'Wan Roberts. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Justin Moore drives around Houston’s J’Wan Roberts. Moore, the team’s second-leading scorer and a key defensive component, suffered an injury after a fall late in the game. His status for the Final Four is uncertain. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“But if you’d have told me before the game that we’re going to hold them to 28 percent from the field, (that) they’re going to shoot 23 percent from the three-point line, and we’d lose, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Sampson lauded his team’s effort.

“Our kids guarded,” he said. “Man, did we guard. Our defense was spot on. It’s not easy to hold a team with that kind of — Gillespie, Moore, Samuels — everybody in their lineup can make a basket. Shoot, we held them to 50 points.

“We had a lot of opportunities. They didn’t go in. That happens.”

Taze Moore, a transfer into Houston from Cal State Bakersield, finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Cougars. He was 6 of 21 from the field. Sampson said he didn’t think any were bad shots.

“We got down early, then we fought back,” Sampson said. “I think we had it to four, and we had a breakaway, and Taze missed one right there in the paint. Most of the shots he missed tonight were the same as he made against Illinois (in the round of 32).

“But that’s the way it goes.”

Villanova's Collin Gillespie shoots over Houston's J'Wan Roberts. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova’s Collin Gillespie shoots over Houston’s J’Wan Roberts. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. – photo by Joe Alexander

First half

It was a game of low-down, slow down in the first half, as the Wildcats emerged with a 27-20 lead on the Cougars at intermission.

Neither team tried to push the pace and both shot extremely poor percentages from the field — Houston (30.8) and Villanova (28).

The Wildcats were the aggressors early, jumping out to a 21-10 lead. Guard Justin Moore capped the run with a three from the top of the circle.

Notable

Houston was looking to advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row. But it was not to be. Part of it had to do with a lack of backcourt scoring. Shead scored 21 points and Edwards had 19 in a victory Thursday night over the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats. Neither were as effective against the Villanova Wildcats. Shead finished with nine points on 4 of 13 shooting. Edwards scored four on 1 of 12.

Records

Villanova 30-7
Houston 32-6

Coming up

NCAA Final Four, at the Caesars Superdome, New Orleans, April 2-4.

Villanova celebrates with the South Region trophy. Villanova beat Houston 50-44 in the NCAA tournament South Region on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at the AT&T Center to clinch a spot in the Final Four. - photo by Joe Alexander

Second-seeded Villanova celebrates with the South Region trophy after downing fifth-seeded Houston, 50-44. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Culture of defensive excellence defines the Houston Cougars

Houston's Fabian White Jr. plays defense on Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Fabian White Jr. defends against Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin in the Sweet 16. White and the Cougars smothered the Wildcats 72-60. With the victory, Houston advanced to face Villanova today in the Elite Eight. – Photo by Joe Alexander

When the Houston Cougars emerge from the dressing room today, their reputation as a basketball team built on defense will precede even the first steps they will take in the layup line.

It’s a reputation known by everyone preparing to watch the NCAA Elite Eight matchup on television. By everyone on the streets scrambling to get a ticket for the game at the AT&T Center.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson hopes to lead his team to a victory today and a second straight trip to the Final Four. – Photo by Joe Alexander

And, perhaps most importantly, by their opponent — the Villanova Wildcats.

Heck, any fan who has ever followed teams coached by Kelvin Sampson over the past 25 years knows what the Cougars are planning to do today once the ball is tossed in the air for the opening tip.

From a team concept, each player in a Houston uniform will know the plan tailored specifically to stopping Collin Gillespie and the Wildcats.

Each will know the nuances in the offensive repertoire of Gillespie and everyone else in the Villanova rotation.

Moreover, each Houston player will expend effort on the defensive end as if it’s the last thing they do.

That is essentially what happened Thursday night when the Cougars dismantled the Arizona Wildcats in the Sweet 16.

Arizona, one of the slickest and most skilled offensive teams in the nation, at first was rattled.

Then it was completely shut down. In a 72-60 loss that ended their season, the Wildcats were held some 24 points below their season scoring average.

Houston's Ramon Walker Jr. (left) and Taze Moore celebrate late in Thursday's game. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Ramon Walker Jr. (left) and Taze Moore celebrate late in Thursday’s victory over top-seeded Arizona. – photo by Joe Alexander

As a USA Today columnist noted, “Houston’s physicality on every single play made things so difficult that Arizona quite literally didn’t know what to do.”

Since physicality is such an interesting word, sometimes conjuring images of an overly aggressive style of play, Houston forward Fabian White Jr. was asked Friday about the specifics of the description.

White had no problem with it.

“That’s just how we play,” White said. “We play physical. In practice, we barely call fouls. We dive on the floor, barely lose the ball in practice.

“That’s just our culture. We want to play physical and not make the game easy for the opponent. Yeah, I agree with that statement.

“We want to play physical as much as possible.”

As both teams’ players and coaches met with the media on Friday afternoon, Villanova coach Jay Wright summed up the challenge that his Wildcats will face, with a berth in the Final Four hanging in the balance.

“We know what an outstanding team we’re playing, (one) that’s got just great experience,” Wright said. “They were in the Final Four last year.

“You can tell by the way they play in these games, they are a very comfortable in this tournament setting. They’re very disciplined.”

In some ways, the Cougars’ commitment to defense overshadows some of the other elements of their success.

Villanova coach Jay Wright. No. 2 seed Villanova beat No. 11 seed Michigan 63-55 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Two-time NCAA championship coach Jay Wright hopes to win today and advance his Villanova Wildcats to a third Final Four in six years. Wright-coached Villanova claimed NCAA titles in 2016 and 2018. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“I feel like they are underrated as an offensive team,” Wright said. “Everybody knows what a great defensive team they are, but I think they really find matchups to their advantage and execute intelligently, offensively, and part of their scheme is setting themselves up for offensive rebounds …

“We know we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We worked out this morning, and we still have work to do to get ready for the game tomorrow.”

Villanova, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA South region, has played a pretty salty brand of hoops in its own right over the past few weeks.

Employing a walk-it-up pace most of the time, the Wildcats have registered victories over Delaware, Ohio State and Michigan, holding opponents to an average of 59 points per game.

Even with Villanova’s play of late, not to mention its history as a two-time NCAA champion under Wright, it’s intriguing to see that oddsmakers are favoring Houston to win today.

The reason? Likely, it stems from the Cougars’ relentless effort on the defensive end of the floor.

“It’s just really impressive,” Wright said. “Every coach tries to get their team to play that way. You wouldn’t talk to one coach who would say, ‘You know, I don’t care if my guys play hard defensively. I don’t care if they play every possession like it’s the last possession of their life.’

“We all try to get our guys to do that. Kelvin gets his guys to do it .. They literally play every defensive possession like it’s the last possession of the game.”

No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

The Houston Cougars’ hope their fans turn out in force today in San Antonio. Cougars’ fans made a difference in Thursday’s victory over Arizona.. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Houston shocks top-seeded Arizona in the Sweet 16

Houston's Jamal Shead, Kyler Edwards. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston guards Jamal Shead (left) and Kyler Edwards have a moment after the fifth-seeded Cougars knocked off the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats 72-60 in the Sweet 16 Thursday night at the AT&T Center. – Photo by Joe Alexander

When Houston Cougars guard Kyler Edwards buried a three-point shot from the corner with a little less than eight minutes remaining Thursday night, he turned around and shouted at his teammates on the bench.

His teammates waved their fists and shouted right back.

Obviously, both Edwards and the Houston bench sensed that something big might be happening. They were right. Led by Edwards, Jamal Shead and others, the fifth-seeded Cougars upset the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats 72-60 at the AT&T Center in the NCAA Sweet 16.

Houston's Josh Carlton. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston center Josh Carlton fights for the ball Thursday night at the AT&T Center. Carlton played against bigger players and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. He was five for six from the field. – Photo by Joe Alexander

As a result, the Cougars will move on to play the Villanova Wildcats Saturday in the Elite Eight round of the tournament for the South regional title. The winner will advance to the Final Four next week in New Orleans.

“Our team, we’re a tough bunch,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “We’ve gotten a lot better as the season’s (gone) on. All the credit goes to these kids. You know, I can do whatever I want (but) the coach doesn’t win games. The players do.

“I’m really proud of this bunch. They bought into the game plan, and they’re not afraid of anybody. Whether it’s UAB or Illinois or Arizona. Our next game with Villanova, we’ll just move on to that one and do the best we can.”

Shead scored 21 points and Edwards had 19 as the Cougars (32-5) reached the Elite Eight round of the tournament for the second year in a row.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Kelvin Sampson led the Houston Cougars to the Final Four last year. This year, the Cougars are now one win away from making a return trip. They’ll play Villanova in the Elite Eight round for the NCAA South regional title on Saturday at the AT&T Center. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Villanova (29-7) beat the Michigan Wolverines 63-55 in the South region’s other Sweet 16 match-up earlier Thursday.

For Shead and Edwards and the Cougars, playing in an NBA arena in a tournament game against an elite opponent like Arizona was a big. A loud and boisterous crowd that filled most of the seats spurred them on.

“We liked how the crowd showed up today,” Edwards said. “The crowd brought all the energy today. They really helped us.”

Added Shead: “The crowd was electric.”

Shead and Edwards helped create some of the electricity. A sophomore from Manor, Shead had 21 points, six assists and four rebounds. Edwards, a senior from Arlington, had 19 points. He hit 6 of 13 shots from the field, including 5 of 9 from three.

Dalen Terry paced the Wildcats with 17 points and six rebounds. Bennedict Mathurin had 15 but he was 4 of 14 from the field. Seven-foot-one Christian Koloko had 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks.

First-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said he thinks his team had a great year.

“Overall it was great,” he said. “I thanked these guys after the game. They’re an amazing group of guys. I’ll always be thankful for them. I think they helped me get Arizona basketball off to a good start in my tenure, and I’ll always be thankful for them.”

Houston's Ramon Walker Jr. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Freshman Ramon Walker Jr. played 26 minutes off the bench against top-seeded Arizona. He held his own with five points and three rebounds. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The Wildcats entered the Sweet 16 on a seven-game winning streak. In their last 18 games coming in to the meeting against the Cougars, they had gone 17-1. In the end, they finished 33-4.

“I think we really built some foundational pieces this year that are really going to serve us well moving forward,” Lloyd said. “Extremely proud of the guys. Extremely proud of the coaching staff. We ran into a really good team tonight that was just a little bit too much for us.”

First half

In Game Two of an NCAA Sweet 16 doubleheader at the AT&T Center, the Houston Cougars on Thursday night used seven players in the first half and all played a role in building a 34-28 lead on the Arizona Wildcats.

At one point, the fifth-seeded Cougars were up by 10 points — 29-19 — on the top seeded team in the South region.

Houston's Jamal Shead. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sophomore Jamal Shead enjoyed a breakout performance for Houston against Arizona, scoring 21 points, passing for six assists and snaring five rebounds.- Photo by Joe Alexander

Kyler Edwards, a senior from Arlington, was perhaps the key player, holding Arizona star Bennedict Mathurin to five points and one field goal. Mathurin didn’t have a field goal until 1:33 left in the half.

Other standouts included Josh Carlton and Jamal Shead with six points apiece and Ramon Walker with five. Reggie Cheney had four. Both Walker and Cheney came off the bench to give the Cougars a lift.

Defensively, the Cougars were excellent. The Wildcats, one of the best offensive teams in the nation, were limited to 7 of 25 shooting from the field. Dalen Terry had eight points and Christian Koloko seven.

Highlights for the Cougars were plenty. Fabian White opened by hitting two straight shots from the field.

Carlton played with flair and finesse on the inside, snaking around taller and broader defenders to hit shots. Shead authored a key sequence with about six minutes left.

As Koloko fired a pass out from the post, Shead stole it near half court and sped the rest of the way for a layup. The play brought the Houston fans to their feet.

Houston's Kyler Edwards. No. 5 seed Houston upset No. 1 seed Arizona 72-60 in the NCAA tournament South Region Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at the AT&T Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Houston’s Kyler Edwards hit five 3-point shots and scored 19 points Thursday night against the Arizona Wildcats. Defensively, Edwards helped to guard Bennedict Mathurin, who was held to 15 points on 4 of 14 from the field. — Photo by Joe Alexander.

Sweet 16 is set to tip off in San Antonio; Michigan-‘Nova up first

Good afternoon, all. I just sat down at press row at the AT&T Center. Time to rap out a few notes on the Sweet 16.

First, the Michigan-Villanova game.

Michigan (19-14) hopes to win and advance to the Elite Eight for the 15th time (16 if you include the 1993 game, which was vacated because of NCAA infractions).

The Wolverines have advanced to the Elite Eight round recently in 2018, when the John Beilein-coached team swept into the Final Four and lost the NCAA title game to Villanova, and last year under coach Juwan Howard. Last year, the UCLA Bruins beat the Wolverines by two in the R8 to deny Howard his first trip to the Final Four as a head coach.

If Michigan wins, it would be the second year in a row that an 11 seed has reached the Elite Eight but only the ninth time since 1985. Since ’85, only five 11 seeds have made it all the way to the Final Four.

The Wolverines started the season with high hopes but fell into a funk during Big Ten competition, going 4-4 leading into the postseason. After losing to Indiana in the first game of the conference tournament, Michigan entered NCAAs as a No. 11 seed and defeated six seed Colorado State (75-63) and three seed Tennessee (76-68).

Villanova (28-7) is shooting for its 16th trip to the Eight, 17 if you count the vacated 1971 tournament. The Wildcats have reached the R8 four times previously under Coach Jay Wright, advancing in 2006, 2009, 2016 and 2018. The Wildcats won NCAA championships in both 2016 and 2018. The ’18 title was claimed at the Alamodome with a victory over Michigan.

The Wildcats enter the Sweet 16 on a high. They’ve won seven straight. They’re also 12-1 in their last 13 games. Seeded second in the South, Villanova downed (15) Delaware 80-60 and (7) Ohio State 71-61.

In the second game of the night, it’s Houston vs. Arizona.

Houston (31-5) is hunting its 14th trip to the Elite Eight. The Cougars made the R8 last season on the way to its first Final Four trip in 37 years. The Quentin Grimes-led Cougars lost in the national semifinals to the Baylor Bears, who went on to claim the NCAA championship. It was Houston’s first Final Four since the 1983-’84 days of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Phi Slama Jama.

Despite losing two star players around the first of the calendar year, the Cougars are hot coming into the Sweet 16. They have won five straight. In their last 12 games, they are 11-1. Houston won the AAC tournament in Fort Worth with victories over Cincinnati, Tulane and Memphis. Moving into the NCAA tournament, the Cougars drew a No. 5 seed and set out for Pittsburgh, where they downed the UAB Blazers, 68-53, and then knocked off four seed Illinois, 68-53.

Arizona (33-3) hopes to win and claim a 12th berth in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats last made it to the R8 in 2011, 2014 and 2015. Arizona is one of the hottest teams in the nation at the moment. The Wildcats have won seven straight. In their last 18 games, they are 17-1. Arizona defeated Wright State, 87-70, in the first round of the tournament at San Diego. The Wildcats outlasted the TCU Horned Frogs, 85-80, in overtime in the round of 32.

Sweet 16 will showcase a handful of elite offensive talents


Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin, shown here dunking against TCU Sunday night, is the player to watch in the Sweet 16 at the AT&T Center.

The NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 in the South region features a few individual offensive stylists on each of the four teams that could inspire even the most over-the-hill, couch potatoes to sign up for gym memberships in April.

Then again, some of your friends in the forever out-of-shape category may just want to tune into the games to watch the theatrics unfold, just for the heck of it.

Some, no doubt, will be inspired only to reach for another bag of chips, or for one more adult beverage — which is fine.

Regardless, we’ll explore this afternoon what both of Thursday night’s games will have to offer in terms of ball players who have the ability to score in streaks at the AT&T Center.

In the first game that tips off at 6:29 p.m., the 11th-seeded Michigan Wolverines will call on center Hunter Dickinson and guard Eli Brooks to do damage against the two-seed Villanova Wildcats.

They Wolverines will be tasked with slowing down some pretty good shot-makers on the Wildcats, as well, namely All-American guard Collin Gillespie and his backcourt mate, Justin Moore.

In the 8:59 p.m. nightcap, the high-flying, top-seeded Arizona Wildcats will showcase perhaps the most highly-rated player in the Sweet 16 in 6-foot-6 guard Bennedict Mathurin, plus a few other standouts, namely, forward Azuolas Tubelis and 7-1 center Christian Koloko.

The fifth-seeded Cougars, possibly the best defensive team in San Antonio this weekend, probably will prefer to play at a somewhat deliberate pace to keep the Wildcats from taking too many shots.

Also, the Cougars’ two best offensive threats — Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark — are injured and out for the season.

Regardless, Houston will start guards in Kyler Edwards, Jamal Shead and Taze Moore who can shoot and play in transition in stretches if it’s necessary. They’ve also got center Josh Carlton and reliable veteran forward Fabian White, a career 49 percent shooter.

Michigan vs. Villanova

In the opener, Dickinson, a 7-foot-1, 260-pound sophomore from Virginia, has emerged as a player who has carried the erratic Wolverines to back-to-back victories for the first time in a few months.

A left-hander with a deft touch from all three levels, he produced 48 points on 16 of 23 shooting combined against Colorado State and third-seeded Tennessee.

In one of his best outings of the season, Dickinson had 27 points and 11 rebounds in a 76-68 upset of the Volunteers.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard, one of the best big men in the nation when he played for the Wolverines, talked about the potential for a good show between Dickinson and Villanova’s Eric Dixon.

Though Dixon is only 6-7, Howard lauded his skillset.

“I know they talked about the guard play from Gillespie and Moore and others,” Howard said. “But Dixon, when you’re a 6-7 center … sometimes you look at that as slight. But he’s not just a center. He’s a basketball player … a competitive basketball player built with a lot of strength, toughness …

“(He) can shoot the basketball extremely well … (He) plays with a high IQ.”

Villanova coach Jay Wright said that he recruited Brooks out of high school at Spring Grove, Pa. In that regard, the coach knows what Michigan’s 6-1, fifth-year senior will bring to the table.

“I did see him getting this good, and this is what we thought he would be,” Wright said. “That’s why we recruited him. As I remember it — I’m not always good at this, but he visited our place, and then he told us he was going to take a visit to Michigan and then made his decision.

“Then he called me and told me he was going to Michigan. That’s what I remember.

“Great, great kid. Great family. This is kind of what we thought he’d be. We thought he’d be a four-year guy and a great player and winner, (a)champion by the time he was done … it’s a shame we got to go against him because you root for a guy like that.”

Houston vs. Arizona

Mathurin emerged as a hot topic of discussion in media interviews — and some of it was for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with basketball.

The Associated Press published a story saying that Mathurin, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, communicated by email to the TCU athletic department in an attempt to apologize following reports on social media that indicated he might have made contact with a TCU dance team member after a round of 32 game in San Diego last weekend.

Mathurin, who scored 30 points to lead the Wildcats past the Horned Frogs, reportedly was bowing to the crowd after the 85-80 overtime victory Sunday night.

As he turned toward the tunnel, the AP story said, “he appears to be looking the opposite way with his arms still outstretched when his left hand goes near the woman’s chest, though it is unclear whether there is any contact.”

Asked to respond Wednesday, Mathurin told reporters, “Yeah, I actually sent an e-mail trying to reach out to the cheerleader and sent (it) through the TCU athletic department. I reached out to her, and that is it.”

He declined to answer a follow-up question about whether he recalled touching the dancer when leaving the floor.

“I answered your question,” Mathurin said.

Playing against the Horned Frogs, the sophomore shooting guard sank a 3-pointer to tie the game in regulation and then scored six more points in overtime as Arizona survived against ninth-seeded TCU.

“He’s the best guard we’ve seen,” said Sampson, a former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. “That’s not coach speak, that’s the truth. I was in the NBA for six seasons, and he’s an NBA guy.

“He’s not going to go in and be a role player. He’ll start. He’s going to get drafted so high that they’re going to start him.”

In the Cougars, the Wildcats will need to guard an array of talent that, as a group, averages 75.2 points. The Cougars shoot 47.1 percent from the field as a team, including 34.4 percent from three.

“I’m so impressed just with how (their) players do what they’re told to do,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Just the effort they play with. They max out every effort area. They’re well drilled on offense. They know the shots they want to take.

“They know who’s taking them, where they’re coming from, and they obviously do an amazing job offensive bounding. And then, defensively, the effort and energy they play with and attention to detail, it’s almost unmatched.”

With players buying into Sampson’s system, Houston ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense (59 points per game), first in field goal percentage defense (37.5) and 11th in 3-point defense (28.8).

Nonetheless, the Cougars can also fill it up on offense, and the explosions can come from seemingly any position.

For instance, they have had three different players lead the team in scoring over the last five games.

In a span of three games at the American Athletic Conference tournament and two in the NCAA tournament, White and Edwards have led the Cougars in scoring twice, while Moore, who is usually a distributor, exploded for a season-high 21 in a 68-53 thumping of fourth-seeded Illinois on Sunday afternoon.

“Three-hour drive from home, we’re expecting a big turnout,” Carlton said. “But we also know Arizona … has a big fan base. We know their fans travel well, but we’re really expecting for our fans to show up.

“That’s the big benefit of having this game so close to home, being able to have the fans be there and support.

Records

Game One: Michigan (19-14) vs. Villanova (28-7).

Game Two: Arizona (33-3) vs. Houston (31-5)

Houston wins, advances to the Sweet 16 in San Antonio

Not only did the Houston Cougars neutralize an All-American center, they totally outplayed the Illinois Fighting Illini in the backcourt on Sunday afternoon, scoring a 68-53 victory in the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.

With the win, the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. This time, they’ll play at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Houston is scheduled to take on either Arizona or TCU in a South region matchup on Thursday.

Up in Pittsburgh, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson showed his emotions after his team’s 31st victory of the season, taking off his shirt in a dressing room celebration as Cougars players doused him with water.

“It was a good feeling seeing Coach take his shirt off and dance,” Cougars forward Reggie Cheney said. “This is something we have been working toward all year. It’s a great feeling just to let it out.”

In facing Illinois, the Cougars had to deal with massive center Kofi Cockburn, a first-team, All-American by the Associated Press. Cockburn had his moments with 19 points and 11 rebounds. A thunderous dunk by Cockburn midway through the second half turned heads.

“I don’t know how many points he got,” Sampson said. “I think the relevant thing is not how many points he had but how many shots he got. He had 11 shot attempts. That’s great defense. But our kids are tough kids. This is a tough program. That’s how we’ve achieved to this point.”

Houston countered Illinois’ powerful center with superb, all-around play, featuring a guard trio of Taze Moore, Jamal Shead and Kyler Edwards.

Moore had a season-high 21 points and seven rebounds. Shead had 18 and Edwards 15. All three of them made big plays in the second half, when the Cougars outscored the Illini 38-27.

For Moore, the game represented a slight change from his role of facilitator. He only had one assist on a day in which his teammates instead looked for him to shoot, and he responded by hitting 9 of 16 from the field.

“It just shows that they believe in me,” Moore said. “And I appreciate them, more than they ever know it, just because all those long nights that Coach Q (assistant Quannas White) worked out with me and Coach Sampson yelling at me, it shows they want it for all of us.”

Michigan

San Antonio knows the song, all right. ‘Hail to the Victors’ was played a time or two in 2018 at the Alamodome when the Michigan Wolverines played in the NCAA Final Four.

The Wolverines will be making a return trip to the Alamo City this week.

Michigan qualified on Saturday for a trip to the Sweet 16 when it rallied with a 22-8 run down the stretch for a 76-68 upset victory over the third-seeded Tennessee Volunteers. Michigan will play either Villanova or Ohio State.

Seven teams from Texas make the NCAA tournament

A few nights ago, it appeared that the state of Texas might have a chance to get as many as 10 teams in the NCAA tournament. By the time the field of 68 was unveiled on Sunday night, the state had seven representatives in the Big Dance.

Here’s a quick glance:

Baylor — The Scott Drew-coached Bears (26-6) enter March Madness as the top seed in the East Regional, trying to win back-to-back national championships. Baylor will play Virginia-based Norfolk State (24-6) on Thursday at Dickie’s Arena in Fort Worth. Baylor, playing without injured big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who is out for the season, finished 14-4 and shared the Big 12 regular-season title with Kansas. The Bears lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 quarterfinals.

Texas Tech — The Red Raiders (25-9) will play as the No. 3 seed in the West. Tech will take on Montana State (27-7) on Friday in San Diego at Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl. Tech will face its initial NCAA test under first-year coach Mark Adams, an assistant under the Red Raiders’ previous coach, Chris Beard. The Red Raiders finished 12-6 and finished third in the Big 12 regular season. They lost to Kansas in the tournament title game.

Houston — The Cougars (29-5) will compete as the No. 5 seed in the South and will meet the UAB Blazers (27-7) on Friday inside PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Houston’s coach is Kelvin Sampson, a veteran who has worked previously at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. Sampson led the Cougars to the Final Four last year. Houston lost stars Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to injury earlier in December but rebounded to win the AAC regular season (at 15-3) and tournament crowns.

Texas — The Longhorns (21-11) will move into NCAA play under first-year coach Chris Beard as the sixth seed in the East. They’ll play in Milwaukee on Friday against the No 11 seed Virginia Tech Hokies (23-12). Texas finished fourth in the Big 12 regular season at 10-8 and lost to TCU 65-60 in the quarterfinals of the tournament. Virginia Tech won the ACC tournament title as the seventh seed, routing Duke 82-67 in the championship game.

TCU — The Jamie Dixon-coached Horned Frogs (20-12) will take on the Seton Hall Pirates (21-10) on Friday in San Diego. The Pirates are the eighth seed and the Horned Frogs are ninth in the South Region. TCU beat Texas Tech and Kansas late in the regular season and the knocked off Texas in the Big 12 tournament. Seton Hall won seven straight before falling to Connecticut in the Big East quarterfinals.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — The Steve Lutz-coached Islanders (23-12) will take on the Texas Southern Tigers (18-12) on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio. Both teams are seeded 16th in the Midwest Region, with the winner getting a chance to take on the No. 1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks. Lutz, a San Antonio native, is in his first season as a Division I head coach. The Islanders swept three games to win the Southland Tournament, including back-to-back victories over No. 1 seed Nicholls State and No. 2 Southeastern Louisiana.

Texas Southern — The Johnny Jones-coached Tigers (18-12) scheduled their first 11 games of the season on the road. They lost the first seven before steadying the ship to finish in second place at 13-5 in the SWAC regular season. In the SWAC tournament, the Tigers beat Jackson State, Grambling and then toppled No. 1 seed Alcorn State for the conference title and their second straight trip to the NCAAs. The Tigers rely on defense and a big and talented front court to control the game.

Duke is too good to pick against in the NCAA Tournament

Well, here it is. The NCAA Tournament bracket that you’ve all been waiting for. No. 1 seeds are Duke, Gonzaga, Virginia and North Carolina. The No. 2s include Michigan State, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Texas teams

(3) Texas Tech Red Raiders vs. (14) Northern Kentucky Norse — Midwest Regional, at Tulsa, Okla., Friday, 12:30 p.m., TNT.

(3) Houston Cougars vs. (14) Georgia State Panthers — West Regional, at Tulsa, Okla., Friday, 6:20 p.m., TBS

(9) Baylor Bears vs. (8) Syracuse Orange — Thursday, at Salt Lake City, Thursday, 8:57 p.m., truTV

(15) Abilene Christian Wildcats vs. (2) Kentucky Wildcats — Thursday, at Jacksonville, Fla., 7:10 p.m., CBS

(16) Prairie View A&M Panthers vs. (16) Fairleigh Dickinson (round of 68) — Tuesday, at Dayton, Ohio, 7:40 p.m., truTV.

Bracket buster

Keep an eye on the Ja Morant-led Murray State Racers, seeded 12th in the West, who are good enough to spring an upset against No. 5 Marquette in the first round. I also like the West’s third-seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders’ chances to go deep in the bracket.

Final Four projection

Duke in the East, Texas Tech in the West, Virginia in the South and North Carolina in the Midwest. I really like the Houston Cougars, but they’d need to get through Kentucky in the Sweet 16, and I don’t think that will happen. Kentucky has a chance against North Carolina in the Elite Eight, but the Tar Heels have too much firepower.

Who will win?

Duke over Texas Tech in one semifinal. North Carolina over Virginia in the other. Duke over North Carolina for the title.

Local athletes

Duke forward Justin Robinson (San Antonio Christian), Gonzaga guard Jeremy Jones (East Central), Minnesota forward Jordan Murphy (Brennan) and Colgate guard Jordan Burns (Marshall). Baylor forward Tristan Clark (Wagner) is injured.

Texas Tech’s Kevin McCullar (Wagner) is a redshirt. Prairie View A&M guard Tyler Singleton played previously at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Area colleges

Texas State (24-9) hosts Florida International (19-13) Saturday at 6 p.m. in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

UTSA (17-15) and UIW (6-25) will not play in the postseason.

As many as seven teams from Texas could land NCAA bids

The 11th-ranked University of Houston Cougars and the UT Arlington Mavericks on Sunday will try to join two other programs in the state of Texas as automatic qualifiers in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Prairie View A&M and Abilene Christian qualified Saturday with victories in their respective conference tournament finals.

For Prairie View, it will be the school’s first NCAA appearance in 21 years. Abilene Christian has never made the Division I national tournament.

When the bracket is revealed later today, three Texas-based Big 12 squads likely will make the field.

Texas Tech and Baylor are considered locks, while TCU is probably in, as well, according to bracket projection analysts.

UT Arlington, under first-year coach Chris Ogden, plays Georgia State today in New Orleans for the Sun Belt Conference’s automatic bid.

The Mavericks will not make the NCAA field unless they win, meaning that they have much more riding on their game today than the Cougars.

The Cougars, regular-season champions in the American Athletic Conference, are expected to make the Big Dance as an at-large entry even if they lose today.

Houston is playing in Memphis against 24th-ranked Cincinnati.

Saturday’s highlights

Prairie View rallied from a 13-point, first-half deficit to stun the Texas Southern Tigers, 92-86, in the Southwestern Athletic Conference title game at Birmingham, Ala. Both the Panthers and Tigers shot 55 percent in the second half. Guard Gary Blackston had 17 points and six steals for Prairie View. The Panthers secured the school’s second NCAA bid and its first since 1998.

Abilene Christian routed New Orleans 77-60 at Katy for the Southland Conference crown behind Jaren Lewis, who had 20 points, six rebounds and three steals. The Wildcats moved from NCAA Division II to Division I six years ago. Under terms of the transition, they were ineligible to play in the SLC tournament for the first four years.

Conference USA

Regular-season champion Old Dominion earned the NCAA automatic bid with a 62-56 victory over former San Antonio prep standout Charles Bassey and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

Houston rises to No. 9 in Associated Press poll

The Houston Cougars on Monday moved up to No. 9 in the weekly Associated Press Top 25 college basketball poll.

AP Top 25
1. Tennessee 22-1 SEC
2. Duke 21-2 ACC
3. Gonzaga 23-2 West Coast
4. Virginia 20-2 ACC
5. Kentucky 20-3 SEC
6. Michigan 22-2 Big Ten
7. Nevada 23-1 Mountain West
8. North Carolina 19-4 ACC
9. Houston 23-1 American
10. Marquette 20-4 Big East
11. Michigan State 19-5 Big Ten
12. Purdue 17-6 Big Ten
13. Villanova 19-5 Big East
14. Kansas 18-6 Big 12
15. Texas Tech 19-5 Big 12
16. Louisville 17-7 ACC
17. Florida State 18-5 ACC
18. Kansas State 18-5 Big 12
19. LSU 19-4 SEC
20. Wisconsin 17-7 Big Ten
21. Iowa 19-5 Big Ten
22. Virginia Tech 18-5 ACC
23. Iowa State 18-6 Big 12
24. Maryland 18-6 ACC
25. Buffalo 20-3 Mid-American