NCAA Men’s Championship: Houston advances to the Round of 16

One year after reaching the fourth final of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Houston is on another tour. This time, you’re doing it with five new starters and a repaired roster.

The Cougars, seeded No. 5, advanced to the round of 16 for the third consecutive championship with 68-53 victory against Illinois, seeded 5th, on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Houston, who lost in the semifinals last year to eventual national champion, Baylor, advanced to meet the winner in Sunday night’s game between #1 seed Arizona and Texas Christian #9 in the Southern District.

“I think these guys are standing on the shoulders of all these guys before them,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who made it to the Round of 16 for the sixth time in his career, said in a TV interview. “They believe in our culture. We talk about watering the trees. We don’t water the leaves. We water the roots, the roots in this program are our culture, and every one of these kids buys it. That’s why we’re successful.”

Houston (31-5), the U.S. Athletics Championships champion, hasn’t beaten a number-one seed in the tournament since the 1984 final, when Hakim Olaywan and Clyde Drexler were the star Cougars. Illinois (23-10) lost in the second round for the second year in a row after being among the top seed. In 2021, Loyola Chicago was upset about being the top seed.

Three of last year’s Final Four teams qualified for the round of 16, with Gonzaga and UCLA winning on Saturday. Baylor lost on Saturday to North Carolina, which means the defending champion is now down before the Round of 16 for five straight years.

Sampson lost all five players last season who advanced or had injuries. Quentin Grimes, a key player on last year’s squad, now plays for the Knicks. Rookie goalkeeper Marcus Sasser, who scored 20 points in the semi-finals last year, fell to injury at the end of the season, as did second-choice goalkeeper Tramon Mark.

With that said, Houston maintained its trademark defensive intensity, often looking as if it had seven defenders on the floor instead of five. Cougars have limited Illinois to 34 percent of shooting from the field. Houston used 11-0 to lead, 65-49, and made the game out of reach.

Offensively, number one Taz Moore was brilliant on the open field, finishing the game with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Jamal Shedd scored 18 and Texas Tech’s 2019 Final Four member Keeler Edwards scored 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.

Kofi Cockburn, the 7-foot-2, 285-pound Illinois American man finished 19 points and 8 rebounds in what was likely his last college game.

Villanova center guard Colin Gillespie was heartbroken a year ago when he missed the NCAA Championships after injuring the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in early March.

A 6-foot-3, Pennsylvania native who chose to return to Villanova for a fifth season after the NCAA granted a waiver to all players in the wake of the pandemic, he’s now making the most of his final season.

Leading the Wildcats to the Big East Championship for the sixth time, Gillespie earned 20 points and 4 assists to guide second-seeded Villanova into the round of 16 for the second consecutive season with a 71-61 victory over seventh-seeded Ohio State in Pittsburgh. Gillespie’s pass to Eric Dixon puts Villanova ahead, 67-59, with 1 minute 38 seconds left after Ohio State were within two points. He hits two free throws in the final seconds to secure the win.

“It means everything, it’s part of the reason I’m coming back,” Gillespie said in a TV interview after the Big East Championships. “Not being able to play with these guys last year hurts. But I am happy to be able to play with these guys on the ground, especially after the season is over.”

Fifth-year Jermaine Samuels has 17 points and 8 rebounds and Caleb Daniels added 11 points and 8 rebounds for Villanova, who has won seven straight games and 12 of the last 13. 11-Michigan (19-14) in a Southern regional game Thursday in St. Antonio.

Under Jay Wright, Hall of Fame coach, Villanova won the NCAA title in 2016 and 2018, the latter when Gillespie was a freshman. He and the Wildcats are still alive for what could be the program’s third championship since 2016.

Gillespie has been the frontrunner for the past several years and now ranks 13th in program history in points and 10th in assists.

Ohio State’s AJ Liddell scored 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists in what was likely his last college game before heading to the NBA draft. New Ohio State guard Malaki Branham, a borderline pick in the first round of the NBA, was an excellent performer with a best 23 points in the game, including 3 of 8 from outside the arc.

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