The seventh-ranked Houston Cougars will kick off what they hope is an extended postseason run on Friday in Fort Worth, Texas, at Dickies Arena in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference Championship.
The second-seeded Cougars (21-3) will face 10th-seeded Tulane, whom they have defeated twice this season (both by 20-plus points). Houston has won four consecutive games and spent the regular season ranked nationally, a reflection of their ongoing success under veteran coach Kelvin Sampson.
The Cougars were destined for the 2020 NCAA Tournament before the postseason was shut down due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. With another opportunity at hand, the Cougars are poised to make the most of their limited tournament experience, with seniors DeJon Jarreau, Fabian White Jr. and Brison Gresham returnees from the Cougars' 2019 Tournament team.
"That's the way I look at it: We're going into our fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament," Sampson said. "We've got three guys that have played three NCAA Tournament games.
"I wish those guys on last year's team could have played in it just so they have that experience. But everybody has a first time."
The Cougars dominated the individual conference awards. Junior guard Quentin Grimes was named Co-Player of the Year while Jarreau was named Defensive Player of the Year. Senior forward Justin Gorham was recognized as Most Improved Player of the Year.
With that collection of individual talent, these Cougars are looking to make up for lost time.
"We lost out on a chance to do something special last year because we were clicking at the right time," Grimes said. "I feel like this year we're doing the same thing. Right now we have something to prove going into the conference tournament."
Tulane (10-12) snapped a four-game skid with its 77-70 win over seventh-seeded Tulsa in first-round action on Thursday. The Green Wave didn't allow inexperience -- Tulane started two freshmen and two sophomores against the Golden Hurricane -- to serve as a detriment.
Down the stretch of the second half, the Green Wave excelled under pressure, following the lead from the lone upperclassman in the lineup: redshirt junior guard Jordan Walker. With Walker tying a career high with 24 points, Tulane blended ball security, accuracy at the free-throw line and execution of the game plan to positive results against a veteran opponent.
"For the most part I think everyone on my team, this is really the first conference tournament game these kids have really played in," Tulane coach Ron Hunter said. "I don't think we've had one guy play in a conference tournament game, and so for them to win that game was really impressive.
"Our program is progressing, and we look forward to that challenge (Friday)."
Hunter was effusive in his praise of Walker following the victory, describing his performance as "outstanding" while labeling the win among the top three in his coaching career. Walker, having previously lamented an inability to close out tight games, was equally enthusiastic afterward.
However, there was a measure of sensibility mixed in with his elation. Houston is formidable.
"It feels amazing, but I'm not saying our work is finished yet because we've got a long way to go," Walker said. "And we've got a good Houston team coming up, so we've got to be prepared for that."
--Field Level Media
Copyright 2021 STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.