Houston's 5 Sweet 16s in a row its best run since Phi Slama Jam. Duke has done a lot since then

Thu, Mar 28, 2024

Houston's 5 Sweet 16s in a row its best run since Phi Slama Jam. Duke has done a lot since then

DALLAS (AP) - Houston is home in the Lone Star State, playing as a No. 1 seed in the South Region and in the Sweet 16 for the fifth NCAA Tournament in a row.

With All-America point guard Jamal Shead, big man J'Wan Roberts and coach Kelvin Sampson, the Cougars are in the midst of their best March Madness run since they made three consecutive Final Fours in the Phi Slama Jam era four decades ago. They were Big 12 regular-season champions this season after moving into that power conference, top 10 in the AP poll throughout and No. 1 for three weeks.

"I don't think that we changed any type of motivation or changed what we've been doing all year, and for the past four years that I've been here," Shead said Thursday. "They had a winning culture before I got here, and it kind of got instilled in me playing with guys like J'Wan for four years and all the guys that were in front of us. ... We follow Coach Sampson, and I think that's the real reason we're here."

The Cougars (32-4) play blueblood Duke (26-8) on Friday night at the home of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, about 250 miles from the Houston campus. Another Atlantic Coast Conference team, No. 11 seed North Carolina State (24-14), takes on second-seeded Marquette (27-9) and former Texas coach Shaka Smart in the first Dallas game.

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Duke was just getting started with coach Mike Krzyzewski and wasn't in the NCAA field when Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler took the Cougars to the first of those consecutive Final Fours in 1982. The following year, Houston lost to coach Jim Valvano's Wolfpack in a memorable championship game. The Cougars made the title game again in 1984, the year of Coach K's first NCAA tourney with the Blue Devils.

Since then, there have since been only two NCAA tournaments played without Duke, which has five national championships. Second-year Blue Devils coach Jon Scheyer won a title as a player in 2010, and was an assistant coach for their most recent in 2015.

The Cougars, meanwhile, went 34 years before even winning another March Madness game, with only four appearances until an opening-round victory in 2018. The next year started their active run of Sweet 16s, which is matched only by Midwest Region No. 5 seed Gonzaga.

"This (Houston) group has been together not just this year. It's been a few years in the making," Scheyer said. "You're playing a team that expects to win. Coach Sampson, the job that he's done, the staff, the program, they've developed that edge and that belief. That's something that I've known. I've known no other way since I've been a player at Duke. It's no different since I have been an assistant coach here, the head coach. We expect to win."

Houston's 125 wins with Shead and Roberts are the most in a four-year span in school history. The latest was 100-95 in overtime against Texas A&M, in which they survived Shead and three other starters fouling out while Roberts finished with four fouls.

The Blue Devils lost their regular-season finale at home to North Carolina, costing them a share of the ACC regular-season title. Then they dropped their conference tourney opener to N.C. State, which won the third of five games in as many days just to get into the 68-team March Madness field.

"We knew how good we are, but with the two losses, we didn't get a win for, like, two weeks. It can kind of get a little unconfident," Duke guard Jeremy Roach said. "I think getting that first (NCAA) win against Vermont was a big thing, and then it just leads us to ... where we are right now. We just have to keep that confidence going."


The only double-digit seed still playing is N.C. State, with the same No. 11 seed that Smart's VCU team had during its improbable Final Four run in 2011.

N.C. State has been playing elimination games since going into the ACC Tournament having lost seven of nine. The Wolfpack won five games in five days against past national champs for the league's automatic NCAA bid, then beat Texas Tech and Oakland.

"We went into this postseason with the approach that it's a new season. ... Every game was its own championship, literally," Wolfpack guard Casey Morsell said. "That's the same approach we've had in this tournament."

Marquette hadn't been in the Sweet 16 since it made three in a row from 2011-13. This is the first regional semifinal for Smart in his 10 NCAA appearances since VCU's run. He made four more tourneys with the Rams, three in six years with Texas and all three since returning to his home state to coach the Golden Eagles.

"I try not to really dwell too much on the past," Smart said. "Because then all of a sudden you do something really, really fun and exciting, and your overwhelming emotion is relief."


AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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Dean Sports