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

Villanova wins, advances to the Sweet 16 in San Antonio

Collin Gillespie scored 20 points, and Eric Dixon drained a clutch 3-pointer in the final two minutes on Sunday to help the Villanova Wildcats turn back the Ohio State Buckeyes, 71-61, in an NCAA tournament game at Pittsburgh.

With the victory, the second-seeded Wildcats (28-7) will move into the South region Sweet 16 at San Antonio’s AT&T Center on Thursday.

They’ll play the No. 11 seed Michigan Wolverines (19-14) in a game that will feature an almost entirely different cast of players and coaches from the same programs that met in the 2018 NCAA title game at the Alamodome.

In April of 2018, Villanova won its second national title with a 79-62 victory over Michigan.

From that game, Villanova coach Jay Wright will return to the Alamo City, as will fifth-year seniors Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. As a freshman, Gillespie scored four points off the bench in the championship clincher.

Asked after the Ohio State game about playing Michigan again in San Antonio, Gillespie shrugged off the coincidence.

“I didn’t think about that,” Gillespie said. “We’re just happy to be moving on. We’re taking it one day at a time. We’re just having a growth mindset.

“We want to go back this week, watch the film. We can get a lot better from it. There’s a lot of things we can do to get better this week and prepare for Michigan.”

Apparently, all of Michigan’s players who played in the 2018 championship meeting have moved on. In addition, the Wolverines are under the direction of a new staff led by head coach Juwan Howard.

“We know how great of a team they are and the difficulties they present,” Gillespie said. “Our coach is going to put together a great scouting report. But I didn’t think about that (playing Michigan again, in San Antonio).”

Added Samuels, “I didn’t think about it until you brought it up, but that team is very battle tested, they’ve been through a lot all year, and they’re going to be ready to go. It’s cool it’s in San Antonio but great to be in the Sweet 16.”

The Buckeyes entered the Round of 32 game coming off a dominant defensive performance in a 54-41 victory over Loyola-Chicago. Villanova nearly matched Loyola’s production in the first half as it surged to a 39-28 lead.

Methodically, the Wildcats built the lead in the second half to as much as 15 points. But the Buckeyes rallied, and a 3-pointer by Jamari Wheeler made it a two-point game with 5:39 to play. At that point, the Wildcats held firm.

With the clock winding down, Gillespie backed a defender down and pitched outside to Dixon, who hit a 3-pointer with 1:38 remaining to increase Villanova’s lead to eight. Ohio State never got closer than six the rest of the way.

“That’s something we work on all the time,” Gillespie said of the key play. “They were playing Justin (Moore) pretty tight on that side, and their big was in the lane. Eric was wide open, and I have tons of confidence in him to step in and knock any shot down that he’s going to take.”

Dixon, a 6-8, 255-pound forward, has attempted only 31 three-pointers this season. He has made 16 of them.

Speedy Claxton to Jay Wright: Go ahead and win it

Former Spurs guard Speedy Claxton led Jay Wright-coached Hofstra to the 2000 NCAA tournament.

Craig “Speedy” Claxton made history in San Antonio 15 years ago when he came off the bench to spark the Spurs to an NBA title-clinching victory over the New Jersey Nets.

Claxton was on the floor playing point guard in Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals when the Spurs slammed the Nets with a 19-0 run to rock the SBC Center.

Later, he helped the city celebrate its second championship.

Tonight, another basketball title is on the line in San Antonio, and Claxton has a rooting interest.

Now an assistant coach at Hofstra, he would like nothing more than to see the Villanova Wildcats beat the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA finals at the Alamodome.

Why Villanova?

Well, it’s simple, really. Villanova’s coach is Jay Wright, a man who helped mold Claxton’s remarkable career.

As head coach at Hofstra in the 1990s, Wright recruited Claxton to the school in Long Island, New York.

Together, they led a downtrodden program to the 2000 NCAA tournament.

As a result, Claxton’s career took off.

He spent the next nine years cashing NBA paychecks after being selected on the first round of the 2000 draft, 20th overall, by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Claxton, naturally, has always been a big Jay Wright fan.

But considering that the NCAA title game is being held in San Antonio, he’d really like to see his mentor win, so the two could share in some personal hoops symmetry.

“I just thought about it when we got on the phone earlier,” he said in a telephone interview with The JB Replay. “Oh, wow, (what if) we both win in the same city?

“I’m going to have to text him and tell him to go ahead and win that championship. That’s pretty dope.

“I’m going to have to text him and say, ‘Go ahead and win it.’ ”

Wright joked with the media covering the Final Four that he started his career with three losing seasons at Hofstra and heard rumblings that he might get fired.

But the coach kept plugging away.

Things started to change quickly when he recruited Claxton, a 5-foot-11 dynamo from Christ the King High School in Middle Village, N.Y.

“You could tell that he was energetic and passionate about the game,” Claxton said. “I came (to Hofstra) because of his off-the-court personality.”

Claxton said he thinks there are two sides to the coach. Off the court and on the court.

Off the court, the coach is charismatic and charming. On the court, he can be intense and demanding.

“Oh, he was very demanding of his players,” Claxton said. “He wants high energy at all times, you know, taking charges. Diving for loose balls. Up in your man’s face on defense.”

What Claxton learned from Wright at Hofstra served him well in the NBA.

“He made me the player that I am,” Claxton said. “When I played (for Hofstra), I played every possession like it was the last, because of him.

“I didn’t just want to get a stop one time down. Or two times down. I wanted to get a stop every time my man had the ball.

“I mean, I took it personal, that I didn’t want my man to score. Like, I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like my man scoring at any time. Not once. Twice. Any time.”

Claxton has worked on Hofstra’s staff for the past five years, including four as an assistant coach, under Joe Mihalick.

In December, Claxton got an up-close look at Villanova when the Pride hosted the Wildcats off campus at Nassau Coliseum.

“Oh, as you can see, they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Claxton said. “They really have no weakness.”

Two years ago, Villanova entered the Final Four at Houston and broke through with its first national title since 1985 by beating both Oklahoma and North Carolina.

This time, its’s a different feeling for Claxton.

“In the first one, I was excited,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe coach Wright is really in the championship game.’ Now, I expect it. I expect him to win.”