Men's Basketball Sports

Sweet 16 Preview: Cougars’ eyes set on clash with Duke Blue Devils

Senior guard Jamal Shead averages 13.2 points, 6.2 assists and 2.2 steals a game. | Anh Le/The Cougar Anh Le/The Cougar

UH men’s basketball will battle the 4-seed Duke Blue Devils for the first time in school history in their 16th Sweet 16 appearance.

Houston got to this point after narrowly escaping Sunday night’s matchup against Texas A&M with a 100-95 overtime win and a ticket to their 16th-ever Sweet 16. After four of Houston’s five starters fouled out, the Cougars had to dig deep to advance their fifth consecutive Sweet 16.

“The guys before us created a stepping stone, and we just tagged along and continued their legacy,” said senior guard Jamal Shead, who advanced to the Sweet 16 in each of his four collegiate seasons. “I am excited I get to play another week with my guys. I want to play with them as long as I can.”

Duke, on the other hand, finished the season 24-8 and second in the ACC. They missed their chance to snag a share of their conference regular season title after losing to rival North Carolina on their home floor and lost the ACC tournament title at the hands of NC State. However, the Blue Devils showed out in the first weekend of madness with dominant wins against No.13-seed Vermont and No.12-seed James Madison.

“They are an unselfish team,” senior guard L.J. Cryer said “They are young, so they have some inexperienced guys out there, but they are playing their best basketball lately.”

Freshman guard Jared McCain put up 45 points across the Blue Devils’ two games and hit a record eight threes against James Madison, setting the stage for a demolition. Sophomore guard Tyrese Proctor chipped in 18 points while senior guard Jeremy Roach and star sophomore Center Kyle Filipowski put up 15 and 14 respectively in the contest with JMU.

“The strength of their team is how they use Filipowski and the strength of their three guards,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “They are unique, and all have point guard backgrounds, but they play them together making them more dangerous.”

While the Blue Devils win the height battle and house one of the best bigs in the Country in the likes of their leading scorer and rebounder Filipowski, the Cougars play a physical brand of basketball and are known for their relentless ability to wear teams down. If Houston can stay out of foul trouble, their stifling No.1 ranked scoring defense will challenge the Blue Devils’ ability to put points on the board.

“We have to play our brand of basketball, but be smart about it,” said Shead, the Cougar’s leader in assists per game.

With several Cougars out due to injury, the return of junior guard Ramon Walker Jr. helps Houston’s depth.

“The dude embodies our culture,” Shead said. “His first play back was an offensive rebound to a kick out. If that’s not Houston basketball, I don’t know what is.”

UH averages slightly more boards than the Blue Devils, and will need to stay competitive to maximize their second-chance points, something they struggled to do against the Aggies.

While the two teams’ history only goes as far as a secret scrimmage before the 2022-23 season, the programs are sure to further it in Friday’s matchup. Houston is 8-7 in the round of 16, while the Blue Devils sit at 17-9.

Duke has failed to beat a higher-seeded team since 1994, but the program has a chance to break a nearly 30-year streak in pursuit of their sixth national title.

However, with the matchup just 244 miles from Fertitta Center in Dallas’s American Airlines Center, the Cougars, who remained undefeated at home this season, hope to drum up some hometown cooking to continue the road to their first National Title.

“Fans matter,” Sampson said. I expect to see a sea of Cougar red, and for that place to be lit.”

The Cougars will tip off with the Blue Devils on March 29. A win would send the Cougars to their eighth Elite Eight, where they would face the winner of No. 2 Marquette and No. 11 NC State on Sunday.

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