Defense likely will be center-stage as No. 2 seed Kentucky faces No. 3 seed Houston in Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal in Kansas City, Mo.
Houston ranks seventh in the country in scoring defense at 61.0 points allowed per game, while Kentucky is 28th at 64.5. In the first two NCAA Tournament games, Kentucky has allowed an average of 50 points while Houston has allowed an average of 57.
Both coaches were pleased with their defensive efforts in the second round.
“Brison Gresham was by far our best big guy tonight,” Kelvin Sampson said following the Cougars’ 74-59 win over No. 11 seed Ohio State. “It was his defense. (Ohio State center) Kaleb Wesson had seven shot attempts, and six of them threes. That means we won that battle. When we’ve got him taking threes, that’s a good thing for us.”
For Kentucky, it was all about slowing down NCAA career record-holder in three-pointers made, Fletcher Magee. He finished 0 for 12, the most 3-pointers ever attempted in an NCAA Tournament game without a make.
“We were never going to go under any screen,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “The bigs were going to help as long as they had to.”
Cougars dominating boards
The Cougars’ rebounding has been strong in their two tournament wins. They out-rebounded Georgia State 51-27 in their 84-55 first-round win, and they pulled down 37 rebounds, compared with Ohio State’s 31, in the win on Sunday night. They are led by guard Armoni Brooks with 6.4 rebounds per game.
Houston’s scoring leader Corey Davis Jr. averages 17.1 points per game, including 21 in the win over the Buckeyes. The senior guard has attempted 26 3-point attempts in the two games, connecting on 10 of them. Davis is shooting 42 percent from long-range this season.
The Cougars have won six of their last seven games overall, with their only loss occurring against Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference final. Houston is 3-1 against opponents ranked in the Top 25.
Kentucky played stifling defense in its first two tournament wins. The Wildcats crushed Abilene Christian 79-44 in the first round, and they limited Wofford to 37.5 percent from the field in their 62-56 second-round victory on Saturday.
Reid Travis has posted two outstanding performances in this tournament, accumulating 20 rebounds along with 32 points in two games, which included a double-double against Wofford. The senior guard is averaging 11.5 points on a 53 percent clip from the field. The Wildcats’ leading scorer PJ Washington (14.8 points per game) has missed the first two games of the tournament with a foot sprain, and it is unknown if he will suit up.
For Kentucky, it’s a next-man-up mentality.
“We coach every kid like (he’s) a starter,” Calipari said. “We don’t know who’s going to be a star. It’s hard. What these kids go through, I appreciate the kids we have.”
While Kentucky is a regular in this round of the NCAA Tournament, Houston is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since it went on to lose the 1984 championship game. Sampson said it’s significant, but his team is not thinking about that.
“I think it means more to the fans than it does to us,” he said. “These guys weren’t born, so it means nothing to them. Phi Slama Jama is for the old guys. We’re living in the present; we’re not living in the past.”
With a win against Kentucky, maybe the present would have to include a new nickname.
–Field Level Media (@FieldLevelMedia)