Houston forward Ja'Vier Francis dunks the ball during the second...

Houston forward Ja'Vier Francis dunks the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech in the semifinal round of the Big 12 Conference tournament, Friday, March 15, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Houston won 82-59. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

Houston has a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, but will have to navigate the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Marquette in the South Region if the Cougars are able to make their first Final Four since 2021.

The Cougars (30-4) were rewarded on Sunday after winning the Big 12 regular-season title and reached the conference tournament title game before losing to Iowa State. They will face No. 16 seed Longwood, the Big South champion, in Memphis, Tennessee, in the first round on Thursday.

Houston is be a No. 1 seed for the third time in school history, joining the 1983 team that reached the national championship game and last season when the Cougars were bounced by Miami in the Sweet 16. Should the Cougars advance past the first weekend — a Longwood win would bring a matchup with either Nebraska or Texas A&M — they’ll only need to head up Interstate 45 to Dallas for the regional.

The Cougars will be trying to rebound after getting blown out by the Cyclones in the Big 12 title game. It was the largest margin of defeat for a No. 1 team since UCLA beat Houston by 32 in the 1968 Final Four. Houston was riding an 11-game win streak before the loss.

“We’ll pick ourselves up. We’ve had a great year," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said after the Iowa State loss. “Obviously 40 minutes is not going to define three months, but we’ll get some guys treatment and healthy and get back at it.”

The South Region also features No. 2 seed Marquette, who will get standout Tyler Kolek back after he missed the Big East Tournament due to an oblique injury. The Golden Eagles (25-9) reached the Big East title game before falling to UConn.

Kentucky (23-9) is the No. 3 seed in the region and will open against No. 14 seed Oakland. Duke (24-8) rounds out the top-four seeds in the region and will face No. 13 seed Vermont in the first round in Brooklyn, New York on Friday.

Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) shoots under pressure from Texas...

Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) shoots under pressure from Texas Tech guard Chance McMillian (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Big 12 Conference tournament, Friday, March 15, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

KOLEK CONCERN

Marquette coach Shaka Smart expressed cautious optimism on Sunday that Kolek, the 2023 Big East player of the year, would play in the NCAA opener. Kolek has missed Marquette’s last six games with an oblique injury. The Golden Eagles will face No. 15 seed Western Kentucky (22-11) on Friday in Indianapolis.

“The plan is for him to play, but he’s got to go through a progression this week,” Smart said Sunday.

Smart relayed a story that after the team returned from New York following the Big East title game, Kolek was already going back into the gym to do some ball handling.

Marquette coach Shaka Smart reacts during the second half of...

Marquette coach Shaka Smart reacts during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Providence in the semifinals of the Big East men's tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in New York. Marquette won 79-68. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

“So he has a level of excitement and passion because he feels like he’s going to play. Now we’ve just got to check the boxes we need to check so he can,” Smart said.

Marquette went 3-3 in Kolek’s absence, with two of the losses coming to UConn and the other coming at Creighton.

The Golden Eagles have other injury issues as well. Oso Ighodaro sat out the last seven minutes of the Big East championship game loss he appeared to hurt his knee, and Stevie Mitchell was wearing a brace on his right shoulder during that game.

Smart expects both to play Friday.

POWER CHAMPION

The South Region features only one team from a power conference that won its conference tournament title. And it’s a team that wasn’t going to make the NCAAs if not for its tournament run.

North Carolina State is the No. 11 seed in the region after its stunning run to the ACC tournament title winning five games in five days including upset wins over rivals Duke and North Carolina in the semifinals and championship game respectively. It was N.C. State’s first ACC title since 1987.

The Wolfpack will face No. 6 seed Texas Tech in Pittsburgh.

30 CLUB

Four teams enter the NCAAs with at least 30 victories. Two of them reside in the South Region.

Houston is one of them. The other is James Madison, the champion of the Sun Belt Conference tournament and the hottest team in the country entering the NCAAs. James Madison is the No. 12 seed and will face No. 5 seed Wisconsin on Friday in Brooklyn.

The Dukes went 31-3, knocked off Arkansas State in the Sun Belt championship game and are riding a 13-game win streak. James Madison started the season with a 14-game win streak before its first setback.

It’s the sixth NCAA appearance for James Madison and the first since 2013. And the Dukes’ can score – they average 84.4 points per game, good for ninth nationally.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed.

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