For the first time in eight years, the Houston Cougars are going dancing.
On Sunday, the University of Houston men’s basketball team earned an invite to the NCAA basketball tournament as a No. 6 seed in the west region and will face the San Diego State Aztecs in the first round at 6:20 p.m. Thursday in Wichita, Kan. at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Cougars, led by coach Kelvin Sampson who is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament himself, come in at 26-7 overall (14-4 in the American Athletic Conference) and are ranked No. 21 after dropping a 56-55 heartbreaker to the Cincinnati Bearcats in the conference tournament championship Sunday afternoon.
But, the Cougars have proved to be a team not to sleep on after posting wins over top 10 ranked teams in the regular season, beating Wichita State, 73-59, on Jan. 20 before recording a 67-62 win over the Bearcats on Feb. 15. The Cougars knocked the Shockers out of the conference tournament in a 77-74 win on Saturday for their fifth straight win. Houston has won 10 of its last 12 games.
The Cougars finished the regular season in a tie for second with Wichita State in the AAC standings and have an RPI of 19, while San Diego State’s RPI is 91.
But, the Cougars will face a team that’s similar to them in some ways.
Coming out of the Mountain West Conference, the Aztecs have won nine straight, including the conference tournament championship in which they beat New Mexico, 82-75, on Saturday.
The Aztecs have also seen their share of wins over ranked opponents, beating No. 22 Nevada twice in the last two weeks, including a 90-73 win in last week’s conference tournament semifinal.
San Diego State (led by first-year head coach Brian Dutcher) also upset Gonzaga in a 72-70 win on Dec. 21 at home.
The Aztecs’ last loss was in their first regular season meeting with Nevada in an 83-58 decider on Feb. 10.
San Diego State finished the regular season fourth in the Mountain West standings.
While the Cougars are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010, the Aztecs have been no strangers to the Big Dance in recent years.
San Diego State has made seven NCAA tournament appearances since 2007, advancing as far as the Sweet Sixteen in 2014 and 2011.
The Cougars may have more total NCAA tournament appearances with 20 (San Diego State is in its 12th showing), but this is only the second appearance in the NCAA tournament for the Cougars since 1992.
Rob Gray has led the Cougars in scoring this season, averaging 18.5 points per game and shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 80.9 percent from the free throw line. Devin Davis has been the leader on the boards, averaging 6.2 rebounds per game.
Malik Pope has been the leading scorer for the Aztecs this season, averaging 12.9 per game and shooting 52.1 percent on field goals while going 71.6 percent from the stripe. Jalen McDaniels has averaged 7.5 rebounds per game this year.
The Aztecs have also been helped by the return of Trey Kell, whose return from injury has helped with San Diego State’s current winning streak and scored 28 points in the Aztecs’ win in the conference championship against New Mexico.