Houston and Kentucky to collide with different philosophies
Two teams with very different paths will collide at March Madness’ Sweet Sixteen on Friday night in Kansas City, Missouri.
Houston has built its teams from talented players, whose strengths are developed over time — some of whom have spent time at junior colleges honing their craft. The University of Kentucky picks elite recruits, and even a few one-and-dones, who know the school is a one-year stop on the way to the NBA.
Despite those differences, both teams have formed into cohesive units and are among the best in college basketball.
Houston’s system means when one player departs, there is another who can step up in a starter role and redefine the position.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has to rebuild and adjust the team’s entire system from the ground up according to its talent, instead of molding players to fit a consistent identity.
“If you lose one guy, your team changes. This year, we’re going to lose Breaon, Corey and Galen, but I’ve got guys that have practiced everyday (that can become starters). (Calipari is) starting over (each year),” said head coach Kelvin Sampson. “I don’t think it can be emphasized enough what a great job he does year in and year out.”
There is just one player on this year’s Kentucky squad that played on last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, sophomore PJ Washington, and there are zero starters from that team that played on 2017’s Elite Eight squad.
Kentucky has three players in ESPN’s top 20 draft picks and another in the top 50, which makes it the most talented team Houston has faced, Sampson said.
“I pulled up some mock drafts… They had a kid that’s 7, 14, 22 & 26… Four guys projected in this draft. The only reason I did that was to make sure our guys understand the talent level. This is absolutely the best team we’ve played,” Sampson said.
But, whatever star power Kentucky may hold is not affecting Houston.
“Out of 352 schools, everybody can be beaten, and they are just another team. We’re not playing ‘Kentucky.’ We’re playing Ashton Hagans, Reid Travis and PJ Washington,” said senior center Breaon Brady.
That fearlessness hasn’t gone unnoticed by Calipari.
“They’re not afraid. They have a swagger about them. They play with unbelievable energy. They defend like crazy, and they rebound every basketball they attempt to rebound,” Calipari said. “It’s going to be a hard game for us to win, with PJ or without PJ.”
Houston will need its usual edge to avoid being stunned under the bright lights against a team laden with talent bound for the greener pastures, but the Cougars have shown the ability to beat anyone, and they will not go down quietly.