The NCAA Tournament has brought about many first-time matchups through the years, and we'll get another one on Friday night when the Houston Cougars take on the Kentucky Wildcats with an Elite Eight berth on the line. The Cougars under Kelvin Sampson are enjoying their first 30-win campaign since the "Phi Slama Jama" era of the early 1980s, while the Wildcats have been constant championship contenders under head coach John Calipari. And when these two forces collide it could be a historic occasion.
Houston (33-3) took out both Georgia State and Ohio Statein the previous two rounds, winning by a total of 44 points. Kentucky (29-6) made short work of Abilene Christian in the first round, then survived a close game with Wofford last Saturday. This is the eighth Sweet 16 appearance for UK in the Calipari era, while the Cougars are playing in this round for the first time since 1984 when the team led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler went on to lose to Georgetown in the national championship game.
This will be the second SEC team that Houston has played this season. The Cougars beat fellow Sweet 16 participant LSU at home back in December. As for Kentucky, this will be the Wildcats' first matchup with a team from the American Athletic Conference (AAC) since defeating Cincinnati in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. This also will be the schools' first-ever meeting.
Midwest Region: No. 3 Houston Cougars (33-3) vs. No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (29-6)
Time: Approximately 9:59 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Sprint Center (Kansas City, Mo.)
Keys for Houston
As good as the Cougars are on the offensive side their defense has been just as impressive. They held both Georgia State and Ohio State to under 40 percent from the floor, including limiting Buckeyes star Andre Wesson to just five points. In the second-round win over the Buckeyes, Houston outrebounded them 37-31, forced 14 turnovers, and limited their bench to just five points. Defense should continue to be a priority against a Kentucky team that averages 76.4 points per game and is capable of scoring more.
Offensively, the Cougars' star thus far has been guard Corey Davis Jr., who scored a total of 47 points and made 10 3-pointers in the victories over the Panthers and Buckeyes. Houston has had four players in double figures in both games and will need that balance throughout the lineup to beat Kentucky. Forward Fabian White Jr. has been a nice complement to Davis with 25 points and 16 rebounds thus far.
Keys for Kentucky
Forward Reid Travis has been a machine for the Wildcats in this Tournament. He's averaging a double-double with 32 total points and 20 total rebounds while shooting 13-for-20 from the field (and 6-for-6 from the line). Kentucky should keep feeding him the ball, and if he continues to be effective that should open up easier scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Keldon Johnson has paced the Wildcats in scoring (34 total points) thus far, and UK will need him to be effective from long range. Johnson is 4-for-8 on 3-pointers this Tournament while the rest of his teammates are a combined 3-for-19. If Kentucky can't stretch Houston's defense, the Wildcats could have a tough time scoring against the Cougars.
Likewise, Kentucky will need to play tough defense as Houston is making nearly half of its shots (49.2 percent) this Tournament. The Wildcats have done a good job in that respect, limiting their first two opponents to just 35 percent from the field and only 26 percent from 3-point range. Remember, one of the keys to their second-round win over Wofford was the Terriers' Fletcher Magee, the most prolific 3-point shooter in Division I history, going 0-for-12 from beyond the arc.
There will be plenty of fireworks, excitement, and points scored in this game. It will be a back-and-forth affair from start to finish with plenty of highlight-reel plays. But in the end, Houston does just enough on defense to escape with a close win and move on to the Elite Eight.
Prediction: Houston 78, Kentucky 77
— Gabe Salgado 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's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.