The improbable post-season run of the Houston Cougars continues tonight as they face the fourth-seeded Maryland Terrapins in a first-round Midwest Regional match-up. It's no secret that Maryland, which tied Duke for the regular-season championship of the ACC, is the favorite in this game.
But the Cougars were the underdogs in three of the four games they played in the C-USA tournament last week, and they have seemed to play better this season in those games where they're supposed to lose. And Tom Penders made his reputation as "Tournament Tom" by taking low-seeded teams deep into the tournament.
I did some checking with Tom Franklin, the Cougars' radio voice, and we've come up with a series of keys which are crucial to any chance of a Cougar victory tonight.
Maryland finished the season with a 23-8 record (13-3 in the ACC), and they're coached by one of the game's greats, Gary Williams. And the Terrapins have had more recent NCAA success than the Cougars, having won the title in 2002.
Both teams are known for an ability to score at a quick pace, and both rely heavily on the play of their perimeter players. Throughout the year, Penders style has been to try to go with match-ups that put the other team at a disadvantage, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cougars going with a four-guard lineup at times.
The most important player on the floor tonight for the Cougars isn't going to be Aubrey Coleman, the nation's scoring leader. The most important player is going to be Coleman's backcourt partner, Kelvin Lewis.
Lewis has been Penders' designated defensive stopper this entire season, and it's a role at which he's excelled. And if there's ever a night that Lewis is going to need to excel, then it's going to be tonight where he'll be matched up against Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, the ACC Player of the Year who averaged 19.5 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, and 6.3 assists per game.
He's the guy who fuels their offense, and if Lewis can shut him down just a bit, then the Cougars have a chance. If Lewis can't, then the Cougars chances are poor. (Look for Lewis to be spelled occasionally by Adam Brown, who Penders also likes for his defensive tenacity.)
After Lewis, the biggest key/concern for the Cougars is Coleman. Coleman's been playing the past several months with a badly contused leg, and it's limited his play somewhat. He struggled offensively against UTEP because he was having problems pushing off on the leg, and it's hoped that some rest will help him out tonight.
Coleman's also a key because the team plays better when Coleman has full trust in his teammates and does everything to incorporate them offensively into the game. If Coleman's leg is okay, he will be able to drive the lane and kick the ball out to his open teammates.
But they'll have to make their shots -- which is something they did last week.
The next key is the play of the UH big men. The Cougars' best games have come when Maurice McNeil and Kendrick Washington are playing important roles for the team.
The Coogs are dismissed nationally as a quick, small team that relies on perimeter play. But Washington is a big, physical presence who has pushed around and dominated big men for UTEP and Memphis. He's good on the boards, and he's good at finding the open man.
McNeil doesn't play deep in the post. He operates on the edges, worming his way inside to get rebounds and key tip-ins. If they can keep the Maryland big men off of the boards and deny them the ball, while getting the key tip-in from McNeil, then the Cougars could surprise.
The Cougars are also a surprisingly effective defense team. Surprising in that they seem to give up lots of points, and they appear to be one of the worst defensive teams in the country, having given up 51.2 percent on two-point shots from down low.
But the Cougars are big on causing turnovers and playing the passing lanes, and they're good at preventing a team from getting the ball down low for the shot. The Cougars have one of the best turnover ratios in the country at 7.8, so the Cougars need to play their standard defensive game and force turnovers while holding onto the ball while on offense.
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The bench is going to need to contribute, whether from Zamal Nixon spelling Desmond Wade at point guard, or more likely, Adam Brown contributing some instant offense while helping Lewis out on Vasquez. And the Cougars' regular-season win total might have topped 20 if the team could have actually hit free throws down the clutch. They did this in the C-USA Tournament, and they came away with four unexpected victories.
The Cougars haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992. They haven't won in the tournament since 1984. Which leads to the final key.
The Cougars aren't going to win if they're just happy to make the tournament. But if their attitude is like that from last week -- if they're out to prove a point about how good they really are -- then watch out because they can be dangerous (Tom Franklin believes the attitude is in the right place).
The Cougars can defeat Maryland. As we saw yesterday, it is possible for 13 seeds to beat the four seeds. But there are a lot of things that have to work in Houston's favor for this to happen. So tune in to CBS at about 8:40 tonight as we'll get out answer.