SAN ANTONIO—The Arizona Wildcats are two games away from a Final Four, having survived the opening weekend in San Diego thanks to some late-game heroics.
Now comes an even tougher test against Houston. The fifth-seeded Cougars (31-5) have easily won their first two NCAA Tournament games, and since losing their regular-season finale at Memphis have won five in a row by an average of 16 points, beating No. 4 Illinois 68-53 in the second round.
“I’m so impressed just with how (their) players do what they’re told to do,” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Just the effort they play with. They max out every effort area. They’re well-drilled on offense. They know the shots they want to take. They know who’s taking them, where they’re coming from, and they obviously do an amazing job offensive bounding. And then defensively, the effort and energy they play with and attention to detail, it’s almost unmatched.”
Houston is playing in its third consecutive Sweet 16, having made the Final Four a year ago, while Arizona is looking for its first Elite Eight appearance since 2015.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats—who are 1.5-point favorites, per DraftKings Sportsbook—and Cougars clash at AT&T Center:
Size matters, but so does what you do with it
Arizona is second-tallest team in the country in terms of average height of its rotation players, yet that didn’t stop TCU from outrebounding it and going crazy on the offensive glass. Houston is 99th in average height, but like the Horned Frogs are offensive rebounding studs, ranking third in the nation in that category.
The Cougars start one player over 6-foot-8, senior forward Josh Carlton (6-11), but they outrebound their opponents by 7.3 per game and have five players who average at least 4.8 boards per game.
“A lot of teams in the tournament are going to have size,” Carlton said. “That’s the factor this far in the season. Just being physical and keeping out of the paint, having a body on them, boxing out, and making sure you work on them. They’ve got to keep us from getting to the boards and defend us, so just keep them active and keep being physical.”
Carlton said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson recruits guys who are good at rebounding to begin with, but once they join the team the real training begins.
“The first thing he does is he drills it into you,” he said. “He puts a bubble up on the rim, and we do a bubble drill. It’s a battle. There is no made shots when the bubble’s up there. Every board is up for grabs. So it’s definitely drilled into us, and I think it’s something hard for teams to really guard against or scout because it’s every possession. Every possession we’ve got four guys on the glass. We know that we’re going to be able to have the opportunity to do that again against Arizona, so that’s going to be a big emphasis for us.”
Lloyd said Houston “takes it to another level” with its rebounding, but notes that Arizona is 15th in the same category. The difference, though, is Arizona is 193rd nationally in defensive rebounding, while Houston is 146th, so both teams are apt to get plenty of second chances.
“Hey, listen, they’re going to get some offensive rebounds,” Lloyd said. “It’s just what they do, and it’s just how the game goes. We just got to do a great job battling and hopefully limit that number.”
Which way the whistle blows
One factor that neither Arizona or Houston will have complete control over is how the game is officiated. If it’s like how it was in San Diego, particularly against TCU, Arizona could be in trouble considering that the Cougars may be more physical when it comes to the paint than the Horned Frogs.
If there’s a tight whistle, though, Houston could be in deep trouble. Sampson admitted as such
“Foul trouble is one of our things that we have to … we fear,” Sampson said. “We just don’t have the depth in the backcourt. And then fatigue. But we’ve been dealing with that all year. Every coach has to deal with this stuff, so I don’t think we’re unique or special.”
Houston is 286th nationally in defensive free throw attempt rate, fifth-worst among NCAA Tournament teams and behind only St. Peter’s among those still alive. Translation: the Cougars foul a lot, and Arizona—which is in the top 60 in offensive FTA rate—loves to get to the line.
The Wildcats’ 770 foul shots this season are fifth-most in the country, 152 more than Houston, which has allowed 40 more free throw attempts than it has taken. And the Cougars are abysmal at the line, shooting just 66.7 percent (Arizona is at 73.9 percent, 80.7 percent in the Pac-12 and NCAA tourneys).
The Wildcats are 19-1 when attempting at least 20 free throws, the only loss coming at Colorado when it got over that number during garbage time. So if ever there’s a game that Arizona fans want the refs to be heavily involved, it might be this one.
Good Azuolas or Invisible Azuolas?
Azuolas Tubelis played only 16 minutes against TCU, hardly any in the second half and none in overtime. Lloyd said afterward the matchups weren’t good for Tubelis, who has struggled when facing physical big men.
“I’m expecting him to play great” against Houston, Lloyd said. “Obviously, I think he would have liked to play more and he would have liked to play better is the most important thing. A lot of times young, talented players like Zu hit a crossroads in their career. You start playing in these really high-level, high-pressure games, you’ve got to be able to perform.
“So I talked to him about that. How are you going to be able to play against amazing, aggressive athletes in a knockout-type situation? So I think this struggle is good for him, and I think he’s going to be a better player for it. Hopefully, it will start to show tomorrow.”
Tubelis said he understood Lloyd’s decision not to play him late.
“I think it worked well,” he said. “We won the game. So I’m happy for that. I just need to play the same. I keep practicing hard, and I will play hard tomorrow.”
Houston is only three hours from San Antonio, so the chances of a lot of red in the crowd isn’t going to just be due to Arizona fans making the trip to the River City.
“I think our fans should be in there,” Cougars guard Kyler Edwards said. “I think it should be loud for us.”
The UA had large followings in Las Vegas (McKale North) for the Pac-12 Tournament and in San Diego, but this may have much more of a neutral-site feel due to the AT&T Center’s 18,000-seat capacity and no seats right on the court.
Lloyd is fine with whatever the crowd breakdown is, and it sounds like he wouldn’t mind it not be as partisan for his team as the past two weekends.
“Sometimes maybe rather than being in a neutral environment, you’d rather be in a little bit more of a hostile environment,” he said. “Obviously, Houston, just with the proximity, is going to have a great crowd, but I think Wildcat Nation will show up. I think our fan base is excited. They love being in this situation. I think they’re going to bring it tomorrow.”
As for how players like Kerr Kriisa and Dalen Terry plan to interact with the crowd, particularly those from the opponent, it depends on how the game goes.
“I mean, we’re just trying to win the game,” Kriisa said. “It’s not that I’m looking forward to wave to Houston fans or stuff like that. We’re just trying to win the game. If we do win the game, then we’re going to let them know that we won the game. But if we lose, then we’re going to shake their hand and say good game and try to be here back next year.”
Added Terry: “When we win the game, it’s not nothing personal with the other team’s crowd. We’re just goofy. We’re all young and goofy. We just like to have fun. We just want to win the game for real.”
Numbers that don’t lie
This will be Arizona’s first time playing in the AT&T Center, which last hosted NCAA tourney games in 2014, but it has played tournament games in San Antonio. The Wildcats beat Ole Miss and Illinois in the Midwest regional in 2001 at the Alamodome on its way to the Final Four in Minneapolis and a loss to Duke in the national title game.
That’s one of several perfect records the UA has on the line going into this game.
Arizona is 3-0 against No. 5 seeds, beating them in 1988, 2003 and 2009. It is also 3-0 on March 24, with all three victories coming in the Sweet 16: 1994 vs. Louisville, 2005 vs. Oklahoma State and 2011 vs. Duke.
When it comes to this season, the Wildcats are 7-0 in neutral-site games and 8-0 on Thursdays. From a statistical standpoint, the benchmarks that have portended victory include scoring 80 points (28-0), shooting 50 percent (22-0) and making 10 3-pointers (9-0).