Just one more win separates Houston from its first back-to-back Final Four appearances since the glory days of Phi Slamma Jamma. In its way, however, is a Villanova program that under coach Jay Wright has won two of the last five national championships.
This South Region Elite Eight contest pits two of the nation's premier defensive teams head-to-head in what promises to be a physical scrap. Both the Cougars and Wildcats wore down offensively adept opponents in the Sweet 16.
"They bought into the game plan tonight, and they're not afraid of anybody," Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said in Thursday's postgame press conference. "Whether it's UAB or Illinois, Arizona. Our next game is Villanova. We'll just move on to that one, and we'll do the best we can with that one."
South Region: No. 5 Houston (32-5) vs. No. 2 Villanova (29-7)
Time: Saturday, March 27 at 6:09 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Center (San Antonio)
Spread: Houston -2
Keys for Houston
The lion's share of Villanova's point production comes from beyond the 3-point arc, and Houston comes into the Elite Eight boasting an impressive 28.9 percent opponent average from deep. However, keeping the Wildcats from warming up at long range is only part of the equation for beating the Big East Tournament champions.
Villanova's defense baits opponents into taking almost as many 3-pointers as the Wildcats attempt, but few shoot as efficiently to keep pace. The result is evident in opponents averaging very few free-throw attempts and a low rate of 2-point scores. Houston is a team that thrives on interior scoring.
Long misses also result in Villanova giving up a considerable amount of offensive rebounds, though, which is to the Cougars' decided advantage. Should Houston dominate the glass, another trip to the Final Four is in order. Big man Josh Carlton will do his best to etch his name into Houston post-player lore alongside Elvin Hayes and Hakeem Olajuwon, the latter of whom was in attendance for Thursday's Sweet 16 win.
Keys for Villanova
Villanova giving up size to an opponent isn't new. The Wildcats have successfully navigated such disparities effectively throughout the season, including Thursday against Michigan. Jermaine Samuels took the fight to Hunter Dickinson, despite giving up about five inches.
"He's a phenomenal player," Samuels said of Dickinson in the postgame press conference. "He's going to get great looks at the basket. Knowing I had my teammates behind me, that gave me all the confidence I needed."
Part of that team effort to contain the big man included mitigating the scoring production from Michigan's perimeter players. Even with Samuels playing a great game, Dickinson still went for 15 points and 15 rebounds. A similar performance from Houston's Carlson would likely doom the Wildcats given the effective scoring surrounding him with Kyler Edwards, Fabian White, Jamal Shead, and Taze Moore.
Houston lost considerable production from its Final Four roster, setting the tone for a 2021-22 season in which the Cougars have been repeatedly downplayed. That didn't change even after sweeping the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles, evidence in their No. 5 seed.
But in a blowout of a good UAB team, and dominant showings against Illinois and Arizona, Houston is arguably playing the best basketball of any team in the NCAA Tournament. Villanova is a disciplined, veteran team behind guards Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore, but Houston's athleticism and team make-up present a bad matchup for the Wildcats.