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A brief primer on Houston Cougar basketball

From Phi Slama Jama to the Kelvin Sampson era, here’s some history on Ohio State’s Round of 32 opponent.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Tulsa Practice Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, either the No. 11 Ohio State Buckeyes or No. 3 Houston Cougars will punch their ticket to Kansas City and be part of this year’s Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

To get to the Second Round, the Bucks held off Iowa State, upsetting the No. 6 seed by three points, 62-59. Houston, on the other hand, cruised in their matchup against No. 14 seed Georgia State, 84-55.

Coach Kelvin Sampson has the Cougars at 31-3 on the season, but don’t get it twisted, this isn’t the only year where the program has piled up the wins. Let’s take a quick look at some of the highlights in the history of Houston Cougar basketball.


Guy Lewis and the Five Final Fours

While they haven’t done it recently, the Cougars have made deep runs in March — all under Hall of Fame coach Guy Lewis.

Lewis, who also played at Houston, took over the program in 1956. He spent 30 seasons at the helm, and had two separate runs where he nearly won championships. In 1967, with Elvin Hayes leading the way, Houston reached the Final Four before running into the John Wooden/UCLA/Lew Alcindor buzzsaw.

The following season, Lewis had his team back in the Final Four. They were 31-0 on the year, and once again, faced UCLA in the National Semifinals. This was a grudge match, as both teams played in the “Game of the Century” at the Houston Astrodome earlier in the season. That showdown in Houston was the one of the first regular season games to be broadcast nationally — and didn’t disappoint, as the Cougars won 71-69. The victory snapped a 47-game winning streak that UCLA had built up over the course of two years.

However, the Bruins were ready for the rematch. They trampled Houston 101-69, and ended up winning the title again. Back then, there was a Third Place Game in the tournament featuring the two losing sides of the semifinals. In 1968, Ohio State faced Houston for third place honors; the Buckeyes won, 89-85, and added even more of a sour taste in the mouth for that ‘68 Cougars team.

It would be 14 seasons until Houston made it back to the Final Four, but it wouldn’t take them that long afterwards. From 1982-84, the Cougars were one of the last four teams left in each of those three seasons, but every time they came up short of winning it all.

Their 1982 Final Four run featured a national semifinal loss to Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels, who ended up winning it all at the Superdome in New Orleans. The Cougars had Rob Williams and Larry Micheaux leading the way, with Williams picking up Region Most Valuable Player honors.

Both 1983 and 1984 were runner-up years for the then-Southwest Conference Cougars. With Hakeem Olajuwon in the fold, the No. 1 overall seeded Cougars survived the No. 1 seed (and No. 2 ranked) Louisville Cardinals in the ‘83 national semifinals. The Cards were nicknamed the “Doctors of Dunk” and was, basically, the eastern version of Houston.

There was an expectation that the winner of this semifinal would win it all, as the other semifinal featured No. 4 seed Georgia and No. 6 seed NC State. The Wolfpack defeated the Dawgs, and then made an (if not the) iconic March Madness moment by defeating Houston in the final seconds of the title game.

In their third-straight Final Four run, the Cougars were loaded once again. They had three members on the All-Final Four squad (Alvin Franklin, Olajuwon, Michael Young) but lost to Georgetown in the championship game at the Kingdom in Seattle. The Hoyas won by 11, thanks to strong performances by forwards Reggie Williams and David Wingate and a freshman by the name of Patrick Ewing.


Phi Slama Jama

The dominance and dunking ability in the early 1980s led to the Cougars earning the fraternity-themed nickname “Phi Slama Jama” by sportswriter Thomas Boink. The name took off, and even appeared on the team’s warm up jerseys.

From a philosophy standpoint, the style of Houston basketball in these years involved moving the ball quickly up the floor, and, when possible, dunking it. Today, dunks are common place, but back in the 1980s, they weren’t — unless you had a big man who could slam it home. Houston had those bigs, and featured a slew of guys who could create highlight worthy dunks.

Clyde “The Glide” Drexler was one of the main characters in the fraternity of dunk, and played for his hometown school for three seasons. One of his best games was against Louisville in the ‘83 Final Four, where he scored 21 points, collected seven rebounds, and tallied six assists.

Oh, and he also did this:

The arrival of Olajuwon really sparked the “Phi Slama” moniker. After a redshirt freshman season, “The Dream” improved his play — with the help of future NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone — in the offseason, and was instrumental in getting the Cougars back to the Final Four in ‘83. In the same game that Drexler dropped 21 on the Cardinals, Olajuwon also dropped 21 points, but gobbled up 22 rebounds as well. Even in the loss to NC State, he had 20 points and 16 boards.

In addition to Olajuwon and Drexler, Larry Micheaux, Michael Young, and Benny Anders made up the Phi Slama stable.

The frat, essentially, closed down after Drexler and Olajuwon declared for the NBA Draft. Even though it was brief, Lewis coached two future NBA Top 50 players and had Houston basketball near the top of the college basketball world like few had been before.


Post Lewis Era

When Lewis retired after the 1986 season, the Cougars made three trips to the Big Dance from 1987-92. However, all three occurrences ended with First Round exits. It wouldn’t be until 2010 that Houston made it back to the tournament, and 2018 until they won a First Round game.

The Houston turnaround in recent years is due in large part of the Kelvin Sampson hire. Now in his fifth season, the former Oklahoma and Indiana coach has guided the Cougars to two NCAA Tournament appearances and two trips to the NIT. Additionally, this season was the first time that Houston won the AAC regular season title since joining the conference in 2013-14.

Will Sampson be able to return the Cougars to the Final Four glory that Lewis had so often? Time will tell, but obviously not if the Buckeyes have anything to say about it.