Houston Will Finally Face Challenges After Historically 'Easy' Final Four Path

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 30, 2021

Houston's Marcus Sasser
Houston's Marcus SasserDarron Cummings/Associated Press

The Houston Cougars are headed to the Final Four for the first time since 1984 following their 67-61 Monday night victory over the Oregon State Beavers.

After leading 34-17 at halftime, Houston allowed Oregon State to claw all the way back to tie the game at 55-55, but the Cougars' prowess both on defense and on the offensive glass was just too much in the end.

Houston also made too many threes against an Oregon State team that had excelled on the defensive perimeter for the past few weeks. Marcus Sasser led all scorers with 20 points and five made triples. Quentin Grimes was close behind, scoring 18 with four made threes. DeJon Jarreau also made a pair in his second straight game with at least nine points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

With the victory, Houston became the first team in NCAA tournament history to reach the national semifinals by going through four consecutive double-digit seeds.

The combined seed total of opponents Houston has faced (No. 15 Cleveland State, No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 12 Oregon State) is 48, and that is just the sixth time a team has faced a seed total of 45 or greater in its first four tournament games.

  • 1990 UNLV faced a 16-8-12-11 path (47 total)
  • 1991 North Carolina faced a 16-9-12-10 path (47 total)
  • 2001 Michigan State faced a 16-9-12-11 path (48 total)
  • 2008 Kansas faced a 16-8-12-10 path (46 total)
  • 2011 Kansas faced a 16-9-12-11 path (48 total), but it lost to No. 11 seed VCU

(Let the record show that Gonzaga's four previous trips to the Elite Eight each featured a combined seed total below 40, and this year's is 35. When I tweeted about Houston's seed path Saturday night, there were a whole bunch of "Well, that's just an average year for Gonzaga" responses and, come on, just stop already.)

That cupcake path is going to be a narrative for the next few days, but don't let it detract from how good this Houston team is.

After beating Texas Tech 64-53 on a neutral court in late November, the Cougars entered December ranked in the top 15 on KenPom and never once abandoned that post. All season long, they have had one of the most efficient defenses and one of the most relentless frontcourts of offensive rebounders, and that has continued through the first four rounds of this tournament.

Despite upsetting three very impressive teams in Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Loyola-Chicago, Oregon State looked hopelessly overmatched most of Monday nightThe Beavers switched up their defensive alignments frequently, trying anything and everything to push Houston out of its comfort zone. However, open looks were all but impossible for Oregon State to come by, and it simply could not buy a defensive rebound when it needed one most.

And yet, the Beavers scored more points (61) against Houston than any other team has thus far in this dance. That's a testament to how suffocating this defense typically is.

Houston's DeJon Jarreau
Houston's DeJon JarreauMichael Conroy/Associated Press/Associated Press

Houston now ranks in the top 15 in the nation in all of the following on defense: steal percentage, block percentage, three-point percentage, two-point percentage, effective field-goal percentage and even free-throw percentage.

That last one might seem more random than defensive, but the Cougars make teams work so hard for every inch of space that even the free-throw strokes look fatigued after a while.

Case in point: Oregon State's Ethan Thompson was 25-of-26 from the charity stripe in his first three games of the tournament, but he shot just 5-of-8 against Houston. Maurice Calloo had not missed a free throw since early February and was 27-of-30 on the season. He missed two of his five tries against the Cougars. They just wear you out.

Perhaps most impressive and unexpected has been Houston's ability to swarm without fouling. Putting opponents at the free-throw line was a common problem during the regular seasonfrankly, the only significant complaint one could make about this defensebut the Cougars have committed just 14.8 fouls per game during the tournament.

Oh, and the offensive rebounds, otherwise known as the defense played on offense.

Houston had a completely unexpected off night in that department in the Sweet 16 against a Syracuse team that almost always struggles on the defensive glass. The Cougars only got back 29.7 percent of their misses in that one. But they corralled 43.2 percent against Rutgers, 48.5 percent against Cleveland State and 46.3 percent against Oregon State.

All told, Houston has grabbed 62 offensive rebounds while only allowing 86 defensive rebounds. And those second/third/fourth chances usually make a colossal difference for a team that is now 28-3.

It's all remarkable stuff.

But as has been the refrain all season long with the Cougars: Who have they faced?

Every other team that earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed had at least eight Quadrant 1 wins. All the No. 3 seeds had at least six such victories.

Houston, though?

Just two wins in three tries, and one of those two wins was a road game against NET No. 65 SMUa team that never felt like a serious threat for an at-large bid. The Cougars had that November win over Texas Tech and no other bragging rights. (TTU's primary power forward, Kevin McCullar, wasn't playing at that point in the season, either, because of a high-ankle sprain.)

Suffice it to say, overall strength of schedule was a huge question mark for the Cougars long before the NCAA tournament began, and this little Waltz of the Creampuffs through the Big Dance has done nothing to change that.

Maybe it would be different if Houston had plowed through its four games the way USC destroyed Drake, Kansas and Oregon en route to the Elite Eight. Instead, the Cougars needed a borderline miraculous comeback against Rutgers and narrowly avoided a complete meltdown against Oregon State.

But if you've been patiently waiting for months to see if Houston can hold its own against some of the best teams in the country, you're in luck.

After four consecutive wins on the game's easy setting, it's time for the Cougars to crank the difficulty level up to expert. To win it all, they'll need to beat Baylor in the Final Four and probably Gonzaga in the national championship—merely the two teams we've been hyping up as national championship co-favorites since before the season began.

If that happens, would anyone seriously still care about how weak this year's AAC was or how favorably that Midwest Region broke for the Cougars?

Of course not. We would spend at least the next decade trying to figure out how Houstonthe program that was on the receiving end of one of the wildest national championship upsets of all time in 1983—became the lone hurdle this Gonzaga juggernaut couldn't clear.

These Cougars have the defense to beat anyone. And if they win two more games, the strength of opponents they faced in the previous 31 will be an irrelevant footnote on a historic season.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.


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