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One year after reaching the Final Four of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, Houston is making another run. This time, it is doing it with five new starters and an overhauled roster.
The Cougars, a No. 5 seed, advanced to the round of 16 for the third straight tournament with a 68-53 victory over fifth-seeded Illinois on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Houston, which lost in last year’s national semifinals to the eventual national champion, Baylor, advanced to meet the winner of Sunday night’s game between No. 1 Arizona and No. 9 Texas Christian in the South regional.
“I just think these guys stand on the shoulders of all those players that came before them,” Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson, who advanced to the round of 16 for the sixth time in his career, said in a television interview. “They believe in our culture. We talk about watering trees. We don’t water leaves; we water roots, and the roots in this program is our culture, and every one of these kids buys into it. That’s why we’re successful.”
Houston (31-5), the American Athletic Conference tournament champion, had not beaten a single-digit seed in the tournament since the 1984 Final Four, when Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were the Cougars’ stars. Illinois (23-10) lost in the second round for the second straight year after being among the top seeds. In 2021, it was upset by Loyola Chicago as a No. 1 seed.
Three of last year’s Final Four teams have advanced to the round of 16, with Gonzaga and U.C.L.A. having won Saturday. Baylor lost Saturday to North Carolina, meaning the defending champion has lost before the round of 16 for five years straight.
Sampson lost all five of last year’s starters, who either moved on or sustained injuries. Quentin Grimes, a key player on last year’s team, now plays for the Knicks. The junior guard Marcus Sasser, who scored 20 points in last year’s national semifinal, went down with a season-ending injury, as did the sophomore guard Tramon Mark.
Still, Houston has maintained its trademark defensive intensity, and it often seems as if it has seven defenders on the floor instead of five. The Cougars limited Illinois to 34 percent shooting from the field. Houston used an 11-0 run to go ahead, 65-49, and put the game out of reach.
Offensively, the senior guard Taze Moore was terrific in the open court, finishing with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Jamal Shead scored 18 and Kyler Edwards, a member of Texas Tech’s 2019 Final Four team, had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois’s 7-foot, 285-pound all-American big man, finished with 19 points and 8 rebounds in what was likely his final college game.