The Houston Cougars gave their fans plenty of reasons to cheer after winning the Conference USA Tournament and earning the school’s first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
But they don’t want the celebration to stop there. UH, the No. 13 seed in the Midwest region, has its eyes set on continuing a Cinderella run that included wins over Memphis and UTEP. The Cougars will face a daunting task at approximately 8:50 p.m. Friday, however, when they take on the fourth-seeded Maryland Terrapins at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena in Spokane, Wash.
Maryland closed out the regular season much like Cougars played last week, winning seven straight before falling to Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Despite that loss, the Terrapins enter the Big Dance as the ACC’s regular-season co-champion and the AP’s No. 20 ranking.
Under head coach Gary Williams, who took over the program in 1989, Maryland won the national title in 2002 and made another Final Four appearance in 2001. The 1997 Tournament was the last time the Terrapins failed to win their first-round matchup.
But while Maryland has an impressive resume, so do Cougars head coach Tom Penders and guard Aubrey Coleman.
Penders is one of the most notable underdog coaches, leading a double-digit seed to the second round of the Tournament on six occasions. “Tournament Tom” also advanced to the Elite Eight during one of his eight tourney go-rounds at the University of Texas.
On the same day former head coach Guy V. Lewis, who led UH to two Final Fours, turns 88, Penders will have a chance to taste Tournament glory again. And he may need the nation’s leading scorer, Coleman, to continue playing the role of unselfish teammate who knows when it’s time to be selfish.
A weary Coleman scored only 13 points on 4-of-20 shooting against UTEP last Saturday, but recorded team highs in rebounds (nine) and assists (six). Instead of attempting to single-handedly bring UH back from a nine-point deficit, he allowed players such as Kelvin Lewis (11-of-15 overall, 6-of-10 3-pointers) and Zamal Nixon (13 points, four assists) to pick up the slack.
This concept of team play also worked when Coleman led the team in scoring against Memphis and Southern Miss, mainly because his teammates drained open shots.
Both teams average more than 78 points per game, using athletic guards and quick, crisp passing to set up transition opportunities.
Maryland has a distinct size advantage at point guard, as Greivis Vasquez’s 6-6, 200-pound frame will force Penders to find someone other than Desmond Wade (5-8, 150 pounds) to match up defensively. Vazquez’s ability to penetrate and use his body to draw contact could cause problems for the smaller UH guards.
He is leading the Terrapins in scoring and distribution, averaging 19.5 points and 6.3 assists per game. Vasquez also has an ability to stretch defenses with outside jumpers, as he shoots 37 percent from beyond the arc.
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