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Why Houston potentially has the easiest ever path to a Final Four

Jeff Eisenberg
·3-min read

Houston may be the biggest beneficiary of the flurry of upsets in this year's NCAA tournament.

The Cougars now have a historically easy path to the Final Four based on their opponents’ seeds.

If Houston defeats 12th-seeded Oregon State on Monday, the Cougars will become the first team to reach the Final Four without facing even one single-digit seed. Houston advanced to the Elite Eight on Saturday night with a smothering 62-46 victory over 11th-seeded Syracuse.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Houston clobbered 15th-seeded Cleveland State by 31 points. Two days later, the Cougars had to claw back from an eight-point deficit in the final five minutes to stave off 10th-seeded Rutgers’ spirited upset bid.

Houston’s 15-10-11-12 road to the Final Four would tie 2001 Michigan State for the path of least resistance. The Spartans dispatched Alabama State (16), Fresno State (9), Gonzaga (12) and Temple (11) en route to Minneapolis. The seeds of the vanquished teams total 48, the same as what Houston’s total would be with a win on Monday.

History suggests that the competition a Final Four team faces early in the early rounds has little bearing on its national championship hopes.

In 2008, Kansas beat a pair of No. 1 seeds in the national semifinals and title game after facing teams seeded eighth or lower en route to San Antonio. In 1990, UNLV followed an identical path before ousting Georgia Tech and eviscerating Duke by 30.

Conversely, 2001 Michigan State and 1991 North Carolina both lost national semifinal games. The Spartans were run out of the Metrodome by Arizona. The Tar Heels at least kept it close against Kansas.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 27: Justin Gorham #4 and DeJon Jarreau #3 of the Houston Cougars react in the second half of their Sweet Sixteen game against the Syracuse Orange in the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 27, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 27: Justin Gorham #4 and DeJon Jarreau #3 of the Houston Cougars react in the second half of their Sweet Sixteen game against the Syracuse Orange in the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 27, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Houston (27-3) earned a favorable path to the Final Four by capturing the American Athletic Conference tournament and earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Cougars are now No. 3 overall in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings, trailing only national title favorites Gonzaga and Baylor.

In its matchup against a Syracuse team that seemed to be peaking in March, Houston certainly looked the part of a Final Four team. The Cougars held Syracuse to 28 percent shooting from the field and clamped down on sharpshooter Buddy Boeheim, limiting him to 12 points on 13 shots.

"I thought that Houston was tremendous defensively," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "Their defense was just too much for us."

The upcoming matchup with Oregon State also promises to serve as a test for Houston. While the bracket may say that the Beavers are a 12 seed, this is a team that has won six straight win-or-go-home games, all against NCAA tournament-caliber opponents. 

So Houston has no reason whatsoever to apologize for its path. If the Cougars beat Oregon State on Monday, they will have earned their first Final Four appearance since the Phi Slama Jama era. The banner that would hang in their gym wouldn't require an asterisk.

Their 15-10-11-12 path through this bracket is just a statistical oddity produced by the upheaval in their region.

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