After a wild opening weekend to the 2022 NCAA Tournament that saw many upsets and surprises, we've reached the Sweet 16, where only a handful of expected contenders remain. Two of those contenders are in the South Region, where the fifth-seeded Houston Cougars, regular-season and conference tournament champions of the AAC, take on the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats, the Pac-12 tournament champions, in San Antonio on Thursday night.
Both teams took similar routes to get to this point. They easily got past their first-round opponents but needed an extra boost in the second round.
After the Wildcats started the tournament by easily dispatching 16-seed Wright State, they needed overtime to put away a tough, physical, ninth-seeded TCU squad. As for the Cougars, they avoided the classic 12/5 upset by making short work of 12th-seeded, C-USA tournament champion UAB in the Round of 64. But two days later, they needed to step things up against Big Ten regular-season champion Illinois — and did just that by knocking off the fourth-seeding Fighting Illini.
Now these two teams look to take another step towards a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans. This will be the 19th Sweet 16 appearance for Arizona — but first since 2017. Meanwhile, Houston has reached this stage for the third consecutive year and the fourth time in five years. Expect this game to be another March Madness classic.
South Region: No. 5 Houston Cougars (31-5) vs. No. 1 Arizona Wildcats (33-3)
Time: Thursday, March 24 at 9:59 p.m. ET (approximately)
Where: AT&T Center (San Antonio)
Spread: Arizona -1.5
Keys for Houston
The Cougars will need another strong performance from their backcourt trio of Jamal Shead, Kyler Edwards, and Taze Moore if they want to reach consecutive Elite Eights for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days (1982, '83, '84). In this tournament, these three guards have combined for 100 points, 38-of-78 shooting, 24 assists, 10 steals, and 28 rebounds.
Their efficiency on both sides of the court has been the engine that makes this team go, and that was quite evident in the second round against Illinois. The Cougars led the game from start to finish, and these three were the main reason why. They shot the ball with consistency and got the job done on defense as they helped to limit all Illini players not named Kofi Cockburn to single-digit point totals. Shead, Edwards, and Moore will give Arizona's defense a major test.
Forward Fabian White Jr. and center Josh Carlton are champing at the bit to test the Wildcats in the paint. Especially after seeing what TCU did to them last weekend (more on that shortly). Although Cockburn totaled 19 points and eight rebounds, Houston out-rebounded Illinois 39-33, had more blocked shots than the Fighting Illini did (6-2), and limited Illinois to just 10 points in the paint. White (6 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists against Illinois) and Carlton (7 points, 6 rebounds, 50 percent shooting against Illinois) did their part to make that happen.
But the Cougars and their No. 2 scoring defense (59.0 ppg) will be tested against an Arizona team that's third in the nation in both scoring offense (84.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (49.6). They also lead Division I in assists (19.8 APG), but are only shooting 35.3 percent from 3-point range.
Keys for Arizona
Guard Bennedict Mathurin is the spark of electricity that makes this Arizona team go, especially since he's been the leading scorer in both of the Cats' tournament games thus far. He scored 18 in the first round against Wright State and dropped 30 on 8-of-19 shooting against TCU in the second round. Houston will need to put forth the same defensive effort they did against Illinois' guards if they want to slow Mathurin down.
Of course, Mathurin doesn't do it all by himself. Forward Azuolas Tubelis and center Christian Koloko give this Arizona team additional threats on both ends of the floor. The seven-footers both scored in double digits and combined for 13-of-18 field goals in the tournament opener against Wright State. Against TCU two days later, the pair collectively accounted for 33 points (on 14-of-20 shooting), 16 rebounds, and three blocked shots.
Both men, however, will need to improve their defense in the post. Against TCU last week, they had their struggles against the Horned Frogs frontcourt trio of forwards Chuck O'Bannon Jr. and Emanuel Miller, along with center Eddie Lampkin. Against Arizona last weekend, these three combined for 53 points and 26 rebounds, while O'Bannon hit 5-of-13 from the 3-point line. Twenty-six of those points were scored in the paint, and at times they scored with ease. Sixteen of those rebounds were on the offensive glass, which means that 'Zona didn't box out and grab those rebounds to get the ball back for themselves.
TCU out-rebounded Arizona 48-44, and the Wildcats will need to win that battle if they want to get to the next round. If they can keep the Cougars out of the paint, or at least limit their chances down low, they'll increase their chances of winning this game.
Arizona leads the all-time series with Houston 6-5, but this will be the first meeting between these two teams since 2009 and their first-ever encounter on college basketball's biggest stage. The Wildcats are 1-1 in their last two games against the AAC, while Houston, in turn, is 1-1 in its last set of games against the Pac-12. This will be another dramatic, high-scoring game, but the Wildcats' offense wins out in the end.
Prediction: Arizona 85, Houston 80
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.