UH Cougars arrive in Tulsa ahead of March Madness opener

TULSA, Oklahoma (KTRK) -- In familiar enemy territory, University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson and company are using the excitement of a high seed to motivate their NCAA tournament run.

The Cougars (31-3), who dominated the AAC regular season, arrived Thursday in Tulsa, where they previously pushed back conference rival University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane team back in January.

The Coogs are back under different circumstances, one that could mark the beginning of a legendary March Madness bid. On Friday, Houston faces the No. 14 Georgia State Panthers, who also dominate their Sun Belt Conference this season. The game is set for a 6:20 p.m. tip-off, and it will air on TBS.

While Houston is rightly seeded No. 3 in the Midwest Region, the team is not slouching on the upset-minded team from Atlanta. The Panthers took down No. 3 Baylor back in the 2015 tournament by a one point margin.

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Houston posted just the fourth 31-win season in the program's history, and the first since 1983-84. The Cougars were 16-2 in AAC play and earned their first outright regular-season title since 1984, when they were members of the Southwest Conference.

But Houston is far from a lock in the NCAA tournament after losing to Cincinnati in the AAC tournament championship game and with leading scorer Corey Davis Jr. ailing with a strained hip.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, the AAC's coach of the year, said his team needed a rest and welcomed not having to start the tournament with a game on Thursday. Playing Friday, and with just a short trip from Houston to Tulsa, gives the Cougars an extra day to heal after a 34-game season and a brutal stretch in the AAC tournament.

Houston is in the "Big Dance" for the second straight season and the 21st time in school history. The Cougars are making consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since four straight trips from 1980-84.

This is the highest the Cougars have been seeded in the NCAA Tournament since the 1983-84 team played as a No. 2 seed on the way to the National Championship Game.

Still, Houston has to be wary of Georgia State based on the Panthers' previous performances as underdogs in the NCAAs. In 2015, when also a No. 14-seed, the Panthers pulled off a huge upset when R.J. Hunter hit a 30-foot 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds to play to stun No. 3 seed Baylor.

Georgia State guard D'Marcus Simonds is averaging 18.4 points and five rebounds per game this season after he was an Associated Press All-America honorable mention selection as a sophomore in 2018.

The Panthers won their final three games of the regular season to clinch the championship and then twice in the Sun Belt Conference tournament to claim that title for the second straight year. Georgia State pushed aside Texas-Arlington 73-64 in the tournament final behind 16 points and 11 rebounds from Malik Benlevi.

Georgia State is making its fifth NCAA Tournament appearance overall and third in five seasons.

The winner will face either sixth-seeded Iowa State or 11th-seeded Ohio State on Sunday, with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line.

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UH Cougars arrive at Tulsa's BOK Center for March Madness practice

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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