Cougars Are, At Long Last, A Part Of March Madness Again

I owe Tom Penders and his players an apology. I thought that there was no chance of the Houston Cougars running the table in the C-USA men's basketball tournament, and thus making the NCAA Tournament. And I wrote such.

Boy was I wrong.

The Cougars pulled off the expected defeat of ECU on Wednesday, though they struggled slightly and gave up a big lead before putting away the victory. Then they upset Memphis on Thursday afternoon. An upset, but not a huge upset as the Cougars had manhandled Memphis just weeks earlier, and the Tigers aren't the team that they were once -- and which the NCAA has wiped out of the record books

Then behind strong games from Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis, and aided by the instant offense of Adam Brown and the work of Maurice McNeil on the boards, the Cougars defeated Southern Mississippi on Friday in a game that they should have lost. But with the Cougars struggling, their seven-point lead whittled down to just two points with three minutes left, McNeil was able to get key offensive rebounds and make the free throws to keep the lead safe.

Saturday's game against UTEP, ranked 25th in the nation and C-USA's number-one seed, saw the Cougars trailing for most of the game as Coleman struggled with his shot and an injury.

UTEP was up by nine points with eight minutes left in the game, but found themselves outscored 15-3 for the rest of the game as the Cougars got the 81-73 victory, guaranteeing themselves the automatic bid to the NCAA Men's basketball tournament.

Hair Balls, as you know, wasn't at Tulsa for the tournament. But our special correspondent, the voice of the Cougars himself, Tom Franklin, was there. And he said there was a feeling amongst the team early last week that they were going to win the tournament.

"When we got on the bus to leave for Tulsa Monday," Franklin said, "Sean Coleman [senior center] came up to me dead serious and said, 'Tom, I feel it.' I looked him in the eye to see if he was crazy after the loss to Tulane, but I could see he was totally in control. I don't know what the players and coaches talked about after we came back from New Orleans, but I could definitely sense a different feeling among the group. Each day this week, I would look for Sean and ask if he still felt it, and the answer was always, 'yes.' It was clear, that as a senior Sean had a big part in getting this team focused on the job at hand, four wins in four days to get to the NCAA."

Franklin also noted that the key differences for the team during the tourney were some things that were missing for most of the season: Aubrey Coleman had complete trust in his teammates; the team's sudden ability to hit free throws -- multiple games were lost this season because of an inability to hit free throws; the play of Kelvin Lewis on both ends of the court; key contributions from the bench guys, and the energy supplied by McNeil who was seemingly there with a key rebound or defensive stop on a big guy whenever needed.

"Team was 22-27 from the free throw line [on Friday]," Franklin said. "Which included key makes by Coleman, Brown and McNeil down the stretch. And McNeil contributed a couple of key offensive rebounds late and on key block of [Southern Mississippi's] Gary Flowers [on Friday] that I think shook his confidence down the stretch."

Lewis came through with the biggest game of his career on Saturday. He contributed 28 points (6-of-12 from behind the three-point line, including the one that finally put the Cougars in the lead late in the game), and he pulled down three rebounds to go with three assists.

This was especially needed as Aubrey Coleman, who has been playing the past several months with a severe leg contusion, was having difficulties with his shot resulting from the grind of the games and the impact of those games on his leg.

"And how great was it to see Kelvin Lewis explode in his biggest game as a Cougar," Franklin said. "Butch Cassidy was hurting, and the Sundance Kid game to the rescue. It couldn't have happened to a better kid. One of my most memorable moments came when Kelvin and his dad [an assistant coach for the Cougars] hugged on the floor after the game."

The players were clear at every post-game session the past several months that things would be different come the C-USA tournament. They said often they knew they could defeat any team in C-USA. And when they needed to, they found a way to pull it off.

So I was wrong. Very wrong, about the Cougars and their chances to get through the C-USA tourney. After years of neglect and disappointment and trips to things like the CBI, the Cougars are returning to the NCAA's for the first time since 1992. The school's last tournament victory was in 1988.

And maybe, just maybe, "Turnaround" Tom Penders has one more trick up his sleeve.

The Cougars will play Friday as the 13 seed of the Midwest Regional. They'll be facing the Number-four] seed Maryland in Spokane, Washington. The game is due to tip-off at 6:20 p.m. CDT Friday and will be seen on CBS.


Franklin wanted to note the classiness of Southern Mississippi's Gary Flowers. After the Southern Mississippi loss, Flowers stuck his head in the UH bus and wished them good luck against UTEP....Tom Penders has now become just the eighth coach to guide four teams into the NCAA Tournament. Among the other coaches are Rick Pitino, Eddie Sutton, and Lon Kruger.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal