COLLEGE PARK — Houston guard Kelvin Lewis paused Monday afternoon to gaze at the banners above the Hofheinz Pavillion court.
"We see them every day when we practice," Lewis, a senior, said in a telephone interview. "I'm in the gym right now and I see them -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler. I see them all hanging down from the ceiling."
Lewis, who turns 22 next month, wasn't born when Olajuwon and the rest of "Phi Slamma Jamma" were leading the Cougars to NCAA title games in 1983 and 1984, or when Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney starred in the 1960s. But he knows a bit of the history, knows how much the older fans still embrace those memories and how pleased they are to see the Cougars back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years.
No. 13 seed Houston (19-15) takes on fourth-seeded Maryland Friday night in an NCAA first-round game in Spokane, Wash. No one is comparing this Houston team to those earlier, star-studded editions. Rather, this team has generated a different sort of buzz. Stuck at 15-15, the Cougars -- who had battled injuries much of the season -- won their last four games, including an 81-73 victory over UTEP in the Conference USA title game. Despite the loss, UTEP, which had won its previous 16 games, got into the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid.
Houston's automatic berth left coach Tom Penders elated. Like Maryland coach Gary Williams, Penders has 600-plus career wins at various schools. But Penders has not been to the big tournament since 1999, when he was coaching George Washington. He coached at Texas before that.
"I'm going to dance, but a little slower," said Penders, 64, who was diagnosed with a heart condition in the 1990s. "The doctor said, 'Chill out.' And so I've calmed down," he said in an interview Monday.
Penders said Houston's history can be a plus. The names and numbers of Olajuwon and others hang over the court on white banners with red trim.
"They [the players] identify with Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney because they come to the games," Penders said. "I have an office and I'd say two-thirds of it is filled with memorabilia from the [later Phi Slamma Jamma] era. But those guys don't come around."
Penders' current team has two proficient scorers with very different styles.
Aubrey Coleman, the nation's leading scorer at 25.6 points per game, is "a driver and a pull-up, medium-range shooter who has developed a little bit of 3," Penders said.
Coleman, a 6-foot-4 guard, had to overcome some shaky foul shooting earlier in the season. "Aubrey shot 42 percent from the [foul] line in five of our losses," Penders said. "He had the yips." He is shooting 74.5 from the line for the season.
The Cougars also rely on Lewis, a 6-4 transfer from Auburn who scored 28 points in the championship game against UTEP and shoots 39.8 percent on 3-pointers. "Kelvin is a great shooter," Penders said.
Houston has often struggled on the boards. The Cougars rank among the bottom 10 teams in the country in rebounding margin (minus 8.1).
Lewis and the other Cougars said they didn't know much about Maryland. "All I really know is they've got [senior guard Greivis)]Vasquez and he's a great player, and I can't wait to match up with him," Lewis said.
But Penders knows Williams well. The Maryland coach is a few months older than Penders, and the two coached against each other in the BB&T Classic when Penders was at George Washington. "He runs a clean program," Penders said. "People want you to cheat,pay-pe there's no question. We talk about it -- how would you face your family and friends when you cheat?"
Penders also said Williams' teams "always played hard. He used to press when he was at Boston College the whole game. I always admired how hard his teams played."