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Remembering Houston’s Phi Slama Jama teams

We look back at the last time the Houston Cougars were in the Final Four, with one of the most memorable college basketball teams ever that didn’t win a championship.

Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Cougars goes up for the jump shot against the Louisville Cardinals during the NCAA National Final Four in Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 2, 1983. Photo by Houston/ Collegiate Images via Getty Images

There are some teams that change the way we think about college basketball even if they never won a title. Pete Carril’s Princeton teams showed how underdogs could compete in the NCAA Tournament. The Loyola Marymount teams of Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble made a frenetic pace a part of their game.

But the true first high flyers in college basketball were the early 80s University of Houston teams of Phi Slama Jama. They turned a football-first commuter school in South Texas into a dynasty that won everything but their last game of the season over a three-year span.

The Coogs had early success under legendary coach Guy Lewis from the mid-60s to mid-70s, and was one of the first programs to integrate college basketball, with players like Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney coming to campus. Houston and UCLA played the first regular-season game to be broadcast on national television in 1968, with 52,000 attending at the Astrodome in a momentous day in the history of college basketball.

But things had fallen off on the corner of Scott & Holman streets. There were no NCAA Tournament wins between 1972-82, and attendance and momentum suffered.

However the 1982 Cougars roster was loaded, led by future Denver Nuggets first round pick Rob Williams. He fronted two guys you may have heard of in sophomore forward Clyde Drexler who ended up averaging 15.2 points per game, and freshman center Hakeem Olajuwon. With 93% of their scoring back from the previous year, UH was hot heading into the postseason, and just got by Missouri and Boston College in the regionals to reach the Final Four in New Orleans.

With their youth, it’s not surprising they were an 8.5 point underdog in this one — according to DraftKings Sportsbook oddsmaker Johnny Avello — to a North Carolina Tar Heels led by sophomore Sam Perkins and freshman Michael Jordan. In the Superdome in front of over 61,000 fans, they came up short in a 68-63 loss. But with such a young, talented squad, and plenty of reinforcements coming in recruiting, they seemed to have the inside track to get right back to the big stage the following season.

And get back they did. The 1983 Coogs are right there with the 1991 UNLV Rebels and 1985 Georgetown Hoyas as possibly the best teams in college basketball that didn’t cut down the nets. After a road loss at Virginia and one to Syracuse in mid-December in Tokyo as part of a foreign tour, Houston ran off 26 wins in a row, 18 of them by double digits. They finished fifth in the nation in scoring at 82.5 points per game, while holding opponents to just 65.0.

They were an 8-point favorite against North Carolina State in The Pit at New Mexico for the national championship game, but one of the luckiest breaks in the history of college basketball by the Wolfpack would haunt them forever.

If you want to get an idea of the strength of the 1983 team, despite this loss they still finished first in the final AP Poll.

Drexler left for the NBA after the ‘83 season, leaving Olajuwon as the main returner on a 1984 squad that finished 32-5, just one game from back-to-back undefeated seasons in the Southwest Conference before a regular season-ending loss at Arkansas.

The six-point favored Cougars would need overtime to get past a game Virginia squad led by Olden Polynice 49-47 in the Final Four in Seattle. The Cavaliers held Olajuwon in check using a triangle-and-two defense basically unseen since in the Final Four until Rick Majerus broke it out for Utah in their 1998 NCAA Tournament run.

In the title game, Olajuwon and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing basically played to a stalemate in the middle, but Hoyas bench players Reggie Williams and Michael Graham combined to go 16-27 from the floor to see UH fall in the last game of the season once again. As a three-point favorite, Georgetown got the national championship and a cover in the 84-75 victory.

But what made these teams so unforgettable is how they played. Up-tempo, fast-paced basketball that used speed, athleticism, and terrific passing to move the ball.

The 2021 Houston Cougars don’t play this style. They’re the No. 1 defense by effective field goal percentage in college basketball, and try and win more with stops and turnovers. But they’ll have a chance to get past the history of the oh-so-close teams of Houston’s past, and finally hang the banner that has eluded H-Town for so long.