UH Cougars focused on Duke, not tradition, in Sweet 16

The UH Cougars under Kelvin Sampson are making their fifth straight Sweet 16 appearance.

UH Cougars focused on Duke, not tradition, in Sweet 16
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The names that have come through the Duke men’s basketball program and the traditions they have created are undeniable.

Mike Krzyzewski, Johnny Dawkins, Kyrie Irvin, Elton Brand, Grant Hill and Zion Williams to name a few. Five national championships, 17 Final Fours and so many Sweet 16 appearances that it almost seems like the Blue Devils’ right.

And let’s not forget those intimidating blue and white uniforms that exude success.

While the faces have certainly changed, the No.1 seeded University of Houston Cougars will be playing against all of that when they take on fourth-seeded Duke during the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night at Dallas’ American Airlines Arena.

Cougars have a tradition, too

But the Cougars want Duke to know they are a program to be reckoned with, too.

“I think we prepare just like any other game. They’re a great program,” UH senior guard Jamal Shead said Thursday afternoon. “They’re known for great things, as they should be. They’ve won a lot. They have good players today or they wouldn’t be in this position to play against us.

“I think we go in and we try to prepare like we normally do and just play the people in front of us and not the name.”

And while the Cougars don’t have the storied tradition of Duke, they have evolved into one of the nation’s top teams. This is their second straight year as a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the program is one of only two in the nation (Gonzaga is the other) that can brag of playing in a fifth consecutive Sweet 16 round.

UH, which moved into the Big 12 this season, has done so with talent and continuity led by returning starters J’Wan Roberts and Shead, the development of Emanuel Sharp and the addition of Baylor transfer and leading scorer L.J. Cryer. Phi Slama Jama they are not, but these Cougars have garnered national respect.

“I can’t comment on Houston the last how many ever years or so and what has or hasn’t been good, but I focused on them, who they’ve been this season,” said Duke coach Jon Scheyer, who is in his second season leading the Blue Devils. “Obviously, this group has been together not just this year. It’s been a few years in the making, right?

“I think you just have to point to their culture. They just have a winning culture. You’re playing a team that expects to win. Coach (Kelvin) Sampson, the job that he’s done, the staff, the program they’ve developed that edge and that belief. That’s something that I’ve known — I’ve known no other way since I’ve been a player at Duke. It’s no different since I have been an assistant coach here, the head coach. We expect to win.”

In another time, the roles of this matchup might have been very different with the Blue Devils, ACC powers, coming in as the overwhelming favorites even in a game that’s considered in the Cougars’ backyard. But that isn’t the case as UH is the team favored to advance to the Elite Eight.

The Blue Devils aren’t as talented top to bottom and as deep as they once were and Krzyzewski is no longer pacing the sidelines. Scheyer is now heading up the program and 7-footer Kyle Filipowski is dominating the inside with three ball-handling guards around him.

Clearly, Duke is still a problem and that hasn’t been lost on UH coach Kelvin Sampson.

“Very, very talented,” Sampson said of the Blue Devils. “They play the perfect system for their personnel.

“We’re in the Sweet 16. Aren’t they all good?”

Getting defensive

Those are the exact same sentiments being shared by the Blue Devils as they prepare to go against one of the nation’s top defensive teams. The Cougars are relentless on the defensive end of the floor, making it hard for imposing teams to get into much of a rhythm.

Their aggressive style of defense nearly got them into trouble during last weekend’s NCAA Tournament second round when four of their five starters fouled out, but the Cougars found a way to prevail over Texas A&M in overtime.

If not the best defense in the country, they’re right there,” Scheyer said. “You have to talk about their effort. Their effort is terrific.

“They make multiple efforts protecting the basket, defending in pick and roll, defending throughout the shot clock. They have really good one-on-one defenders. Obviously, that’s the best way you can break a defense down is by getting by. They make it hard on you to get by. Then when you do get by, there’s going to be somebody else that’s always there waiting to help.”

But the Blue Devils feel like they are prepared for the defensive pressure UH will bring.

“I feel like we’ve played teams like them all season, like the physicality aspect of it,” said Duke guard Tyrese Proctor. “I think just playing poised and just limiting turnovers is going to be a huge thing for us.

“They try and muck up the game and try and make it harder than it is, and I think if we just are disciplined and poised, we’ll be fine.”