There was a time when the Houston Cougars were one of the best programs in the country. They made the Final Four in three straight years in the 1980s. A decade earlier, Houston reached at least the regional semifinals seven times in a 10-year stretch.
Thirty-five years after Hakeem Olajuwon led the Cougars to back-to-back appearances in the national championship game, Houston is into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984.
The Midwest regional in Kansas City will be a star-laden affair, with the No. 1-seed North Carolina Tar Heels, No. 2-seed Kentucky Wildcats and No. 5-seed Auburn Tigers. No. 3-seed Houston, after a 74-59 win against the No. 11-seed Ohio State Buckeyes on Sunday, is a pretty talented party-crashing outlier.
This NCAA Tournament has been about as chalky as can be. All four No. 1 seeds, all four No. 2 seeds and all four No. 3 seeds advanced to the second weekend of March Madness. Two of the No. 4 seeds are into the Sweet 16 with one No. 5 seed. The closest thing to Cinderella could be the No. 12-seed Oregon Ducks, who, of course, play in the high-major Pac-12 Conference.
Power Five Conferences are really only a thing in football, but the Cougars are the only team from outside one of the five biggest leagues other than the perennial-powerhouse Gonzaga Bulldogs. There appears a Cinderella element here, too.
Until you remember all the history — not just theirs, but their coaches’, too. Next weekend will also mark a long-awaited return to the big stage for Kelvin Sampson. The coach was a staple at the second weekend toward the end of his tenure with the Oklahoma Sooners, last reaching the Sweet 16 in 2003.
A star-studded affair in Missouri will get even more intrigue with a long-absent coach and even longer-absent program.