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Another No. 1 seed goes down as No. 5 Houston bullies Arizona in Sweet 16 win – USA TODAY

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SAN ANTONIO — For the Houston Cougars, it doesn’t matter if they’re playing a bottom-rung team in the American Athletic Conference or one of the favorites to win the national title. They’re going to bring it every second of every possession and make it absolutely miserable to try and beat them. 

Arizona may have seen it on film coming into the South Regional, but they couldn’t have actually known what it meant until the ball was tipped Thursday. And it was even more unpleasant in person than they could have imagined as they became the third No. 1 seed to fall in the NCAA Tournament. 

Houston’s defensive pressure, aggressiveness on the glass and willingness to go all-out for every contested ball turned one of the best teams all season into dust, grinding away everything the Wildcats wanted to do in a 72-60 victory that may have been an upset by seeding but was not according to the analytics. 

In fact, the Cougars came into the Sweet 16 as the No. 2 team in the country according to the Ken Pomeroy efficiency metrics — Arizona was No. 3 — and looked every bit the part in a game they controlled from the opening tip until the final minute. 

The Cougars, seeded No. 5 in the South, will face No. 2 seed Villanova on Saturday in hopes of making their second consecutive Final Four. 

“We’re not going to win a lot of beauty contests, but victories don’t come with asterisks,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “It’s not a beauty contest. I watched Arizona play. I watched them play UCLA, I watched them play Colorado, and I watched the way those teams guarded them. We weren’t going to guard them that way. They just switched (on screens), and they were comfortable. I knew we were going to make them uncomfortable. That’s what we do.”

For most of this season, the narrative with Houston was how remarkable it was for Sampson’s team to even win its league after losing two key players to injury early: Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser. 

But now, Houston has offered an entirely different paradigm: Are the Cougars contenders to win it all? 

If you believe the analytics — and perhaps even your eyes — you’d have to say they are.

Sure, it helped that Houston was playing in front of a friendly crowd at AT&T Center just a few hours from campus. But the way Houston bottles up opponents with their hustle and defense tends to travel anywhere, against any kind of team. 

And there was no better example than what the Cougars did to Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona’s best player, holding him to 15 points on 4-for-14 shooting from the field. But even that doesn’t tell the full story of how they pretty much erased Mathurin for most of the game, challenging every catch, every shot and eventually just forcing him into poor decisions when he tried to fuel a last-minute comeback. 

Without Mathurin facilitating offense, Arizona struggled to generate good looks, shooting 33 percent from the field and turning it over 14 times. 

“Houston’s one of those teams that you’re better served if you play them a couple times,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “The first time you play them, they do the things they’re good at at such a high level, it’s hard for you to get comfortable the first time around. You can try to tell your guys what’s coming, but they have a lot better feel for it trying to experience it.”

After a first-half struggle that left them fortunate to trail just 34-28, the Wildcats cut the deficit to one possession a couple of times early in the second with some offensive adjustments and crisper ball movement.

But Houston immediately countered, Sampson said, by going under screens to take away the short roll or the slip action that Arizona got a couple of easy buckets from early in the second half. Meanwhile, Houston raced away again and got timely shooting from Kyler Edwards, who made four threes in the second half — the last one with 1:20 left that put the game away after Arizona had crawled back within six. 

Houston also beat Arizona up on the glass with 19 second-chance points and 24 points off turnovers. As brilliant as Arizona was for most of this season in going 33-3 with the Pac-12 title, Houston was simply the tougher and better team. 

“The key to beating Arizona is controlling the pace,” Sampson said. “We’re going to win a game in the 60s, but we aren’t going to win a game in the 80s. If it’s in the 80s, they’re doing what they practice. If it’s in the 50s and 60s, that means our defense was really good.”

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