Results from the first four games are in the books, signaling Thursday’s start of the real race to the Final Four for blueblood programs and potential bracket-busters in the NCAA Tournament.
Along the path to Atlanta, where the champion will be crowned April 8, participating men’s basketball teams will stop in Austin (Friday-Sunday) and at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington (March 29-31) to eliminate some of the remaining 64 schools with title hopes.
Although Texas schools were shut out of this year’s field for the first time in 36 years, there are plenty of native Texans — and local storylines — to track among the remaining title contenders. In an upset-filled regular season when five teams held the top spot in the weekly polls, this also projects as the most wide-open tournament in years. Maybe decades.
To prepare you for the full-throttle start of the nation’s annual March obsession, here are a series of storylines to monitor and facts worth factoring into the equation if you want to make a last-minute tweak to your tournament ballot(s) before Thursday’s first tipoff. In honor of the Final Four, they’re broken into four categories with four items each:
Unprecedented parity: The top spot in the weekly polls changed hands six times during the season, with No. 1 Gonzaga (31-2) carrying that bull’s eye into the tournament. A total of 14 teams cracked the top five for at least one week but no team remained in such a lofty perch for the entire season. Among the top five teams in The Associated Press’ preseason rankings — Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan — only Louisville and Indiana (two of four No. 1 seeds) will carry that type of ranking into the tournament. Kentucky, the defending champion, did not even make the field and was eliminated by Robert Morris, 59-57, in Tuesday’s opening game in the NIT.
Under-the-radar contenders: Typically, an upstart team runs out of steam after pulling a couple of upsets to reach the Sweet 16. Then, the traditional powers step in to fill the Final Four vacancies and one of them cuts down the nets in the title game. That does not have to happen in 2013, with six schools seeded fifth or higher seeking their first NCAA title: Gonzaga (31-2), Miami (27-6), New Mexico (29-5), Saint Louis (27-6), Kansas State (27-7) and Virginia Commonwealth (26-8).
Remembering Rick: Saint Louis, winner of the Atlantic-10 title and conference tournament, has had a remarkable season despite dealing with the Dec. 1 death of former coach Rick Majerus (heart failure), who never returned to his post after taking a medical leave in August. Majerus, who led Utah to the 1998 NCAA title game, jump-started the Saint Louis program after a decade of decline. Successor Jim Crews, Majerus’ former top assistant, has helped the Billikens (27-6) grab a No. 4 seed in a season that includes three victories over Butler, the NCAA runner-up in 2010 and 2011. SLU projects to be a sentimental favorite among neutral fans if the Billikens can make an extended tournament run.
Return of the seniors: After watching Kentucky capture last year’s title with a lineup dominated by one-and-done freshmen, many of this year’s elite teams lean on veterans. Kansas, the top seed in the South, starts four seniors, including three fifth-year seniors. Miami, the No. 2 seed in the East, starts four seniors and has five seniors among its top six players in minutes played. Teams with three senior starters include No. 2 Duke (Midwest) and No. 3 Florida (South).
League on the rise: The Mountain West began the tournament with five participants, most in conference history. That is one more than the ACC (four), two more than the SEC (three). Four MWC teams are seeded eighth or higher: No. 3 New Mexico, No. 5 UNLV, No. 7 San Diego State and No. 8 Colorado State.
League on the decline: The SEC, home of more NCAA basketball champions than any other conference over the past seven seasons (three), placed only three teams in the field. Florida, a No. 3 seed, will be the only one favored to advance past its opening game.
League with most title contenders: The Big Ten has seven schools in the field, with a team seeded fourth or higher in each regional. An All-Big Ten Final Four could emerge consisting of these seeds: No. 1 Indiana (East), No. 2 Ohio State (West), No. 3 Michigan State (Midwest) and No. 4 Michigan (South).
League seeking last hurrah: In its final season in its current configuration, the 18-member Big East has a chance to leave a lasting impression of its basketball-rich legacy. Eight schools earned berths, with the top seeds being No. 1 Louisville (Midwest), No. 2 Georgetown (South), No. 3 Marquette (East), No. 4 Syracuse (East) and No. 7 Notre Dame (West).
Tarrant County storylines
Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss: The Rebels’ emotional, energetic shooting guard is a Hurst L.D. Bell graduate and the son of Blue Raiders’ coach Willie Henderson. A junior college transfer, Henderson led the SEC in scoring (20.1 average) and led Ole Miss to the conference tournament title in his first season on campus. He speaks his mind in interview situations, has outrageous shooting range and could become the face of the tournament if the Rebels make an extended run. Ole Miss plays Wisconsin in a Friday matchup (11:40 a.m., truTV).
Arlington reunion possibility: Oklahoma guard Je’lon Hornbeak, from Arlington Grace Prep, could wind up playing in his hometown at Cowboys Stadium, March 29-31. Hornbeak, a freshman, has averaged 5.6 points and 1.7 assists per game for OU, the No. 10 seed in the South Regional. Forward Charles Buggs, an Arlington Martin graduate, is on the roster at Minnesota (No. 11 seed, South) but is redshirting after spending last season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.
Defensive dynamo: Although his offensive numbers have increased across the board in his senior season, Iowa State guard Chris Babb is still known as the Cyclones’ defensive stopper. A graduate of Arlington Oakridge, Babb (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) typically takes on the opponent’s best perimeter player and, in the estimation of Cyclones’ coach Fred Hoiberg, wins more than his share of the battles. Babb (9.3 points per game) and ISU (22-11) play Friday against Notre Dame (25-9) in a West Regional game in Dayton, Ohio.
Trevor Noack, Belmont: The Bruins’ starting center is a Keller Central graduate who averages 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest for the Ohio Valley Conference champions. Noack (6-foot-7, 240 pounds), a senior, remains the career leader for points and rebounds at Keller Central. Noack and Belmont (26-6) begin their NCAA quest Thursday against Arizona (25-7) in a West Regional matchup (6:20 p.m., TNT).
Inside the numbers
Big 12 success rate: Over the last five seasons, no conference has a better winning percentage in NCAA Tournament play than the Big 12 (61.8 percent). League teams are a combined 47-29 during that stretch, including a 2008 national championship for Kansas. Rounding out the top five leagues during that stretch are the ACC (38-24, 61.3), Big East (63-42, 60), Big Ten (41-29) and SEC (28-21, 57.1).
Familiar faces: Although Texas dropped off the list this season after 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, six participants in the 2013 tournament have reached the Big Dance for at least 15 consecutive seasons. The list includes Kansas (24), Duke (18), Michigan State (16), Gonzaga (15) and Wisconsin (15). Among those teams, three won national titles: Kansas (2008), Duke (2001) and Michigan State (2000).
Offense trumps defense: The nation’s six highest-scoring teams all made the NCAA field, led by Northwestern (La.) State at 81 points per game. In order, the rest of the top six were Iona (80.7), Indiana (80.0), Iowa State (79.6), LIU-Brooklyn (79.5) and Duke (78.3). But only two of the nation’s top six teams in scoring defense are in the Big Dance: Florida (53.7), which ranked third, and Pittsburgh (55.4), which ranked sixth.
Triskaidekaphobia factor: Gonzaga (31-2), the top seed in the West, may not want to face the winner of Wednesday night’s Boise State-LaSalle matchup that determined the region’s 13th seed in a potential Sweet 16 matchup. The top-ranked Zags lost their only games this season when matched against two teams ranked No. 13 in the AP poll at the time of the contest: at home against Illinois, 85-74, on Dec. 8 and at Butler, 64-63, on Jan. 13. Yes, triskaidekaphobia is the medical term for fear of the number 13. And for future reference: St. Louis, the No. 4 seed in the Midwest, grabbed the No. 13 spot in both of this week’s college basketball polls.