Two of the season’s most compelling questions in college basketball should be answered by Saturday.
Based on this week’s schedule, we’ll know if SMU coach Larry Brown has a team worthy of at-large consideration for an NCAA Tournament berth. We’ll also learn if No. 4 Wichita State, one of two undefeated teams left in the country, is on the fast track to deserving a No. 1 seed to this year’s Big Dance.
Call it Validation Weekend for both of the under-the-radar teams. And consider both in good shape to make it happen as long as the Mustangs (17-5, 6-3 in American) and the Shockers (23-0, 10-0 in Missouri Valley) post 2-0 records this week.
Anything less raises question marks, as well as eyebrows, among members of the NCAA selection committee.
But this much is certain: SMU, despite being unranked, has knocked off two Top 25 opponents this season (No. 22 Connecticut, No. 24 Memphis) and should become a legitimate at-large bid candidate if it can sweep this week’s home games at Moody Coliseum: Thursday against Temple (6-14, 1-7) and Saturday against No. 7 Cincinnati (21-2, 10-0). The Cincinnati game, on national TV (6:30 p.m., ESPNU), will be crucial for the Ponies in efforts to boost their RPI ranking enough to offset two dubious road losses (South Florida, Arkansas).
Brown, SMU’s legendary second-year coach, understands what is on the line for a team seeking to improve its No. 45 perch in the latest RPI and turn the heads of selection committee members.
“We showed me we can be a quality team,” Brown said after Saturday’s 87-72 victory over Memphis. “I’m not happy about being a quality team. I want us to be a nationally ranked team that expects to win. Then, I think we’d be happy.”
An upset of the seventh-ranked Bearcats, who defeated SMU 65-57 in last month’s meeting in Cincinnati, would represent a giant step in that direction. With No. 14 Louisville (18-4, 7-2) having dropped home games to both Cincinnati and Memphis, an SMU victory over the Bearcats might sway more committee members than a victory over the defending national champs when they visit Dallas on March 5.
To really turn some heads, SMU — 9-0 at home this season — is urged to beat both heavyweights, along with Temple, in matchups at Moody. And to play better on the road as a favorite, an issue Brown cited as the team’s biggest challenge.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Brown said. “We haven’t got to that point yet.”
Wichita State, on the other hand, has reached that status. If the Shockers, 7-0 in road games, continue along that path this week in two hostile environments — Wednesday at Indiana State (17-5, 8-2) and Saturday at Northern Iowa (11-11, 5-5) — they should become a frontrunner for a No. 1 seed. That should remain true if they lose a game before Selection Sunday.
You won’t hear that sentiment seconded by commissioners from the Big 12 or Big Ten, who might see one of their teams bumped from the top line by Wichita State. But these Shockers are a better team than the Gonzaga squad (32-3) that earned a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament before falling to — drum roll, please — ninth-seeded Wichita State, which reached the Final Four before losing to Louisville, 72-68.
The best player on the floor in that semifinal matchup, Shockers’ forward Cleanthony Early (24 points, 10 rebounds), is part of WSU’s strong returning nucleus. Wichita State features six of its top nine scorers from that Final Four team. Included is guard Ron Baker (12.9 points per game), who matched Early’s 16 points in the win over Gonzaga.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has been outspoken about his team deserving a No. 1 seed if it carries an undefeated record into the NCAA Tournament and pointed to this week as a litmus test after Saturday’s 81-67 victory over Evansville.
“We’ve run the streak to 23 and now we have the week everyone has been talking about and pointing at,” Marshall said. “We’ve got two of the best teams in our league, back-to-back, on the road. We’ve just got to go and play good basketball.”
In other words, continue doing what they’re doing. Despite the efforts of Kansas coach Bill Self, who has the eighth-ranked Jayhawks on track for a 10th consecutive Big 12 title, Wichita State has been the best college team in Kansas this season. Emphasis on team.
Kansas has more future NBA stars and may play better in March. But Wichita State has more proven depth than most teams in the country, with a standout point guard (Fred VanVleet) and balanced scoring inside and outside. Wichita State deserves at least as much respect on Selection Sunday as last year’s Gonzaga squad that earned a No. 1 seed with two regular-season losses.
Unlike those Zags, these Shockers have a Final Four pedigree and a legitimate chance to win it all this April in Arlington.
But first, Wichita State must handle Validation Weekend. So, too, must SMU.
Spotlight: Demarcus Holland, Texas G
Texas guard Demarcus Holland, a sophomore from Garland Naaman Forest, is not one of the Longhorns’ four double-digit scorers who generate most of the headlines for a red-hot team in a turnaround season.
But Holland (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) plays a significant role as a defensive stopper for No. 15 Texas, which carried a six-game winning steak into Tuesday night’s matchup in Fort Worth against TCU. Holland drove home that point in Saturday’s 81-69 upset of then-No. 6 Kansas, holding star freshman Andrew Wiggins to seven points during a 2-for-12 shooting performance and helping the Horns knock off their fourth consecutive Top 25 opponent.
“I always like to be involved in the impact plays that are not on the box scores all the time,” said Holland, who is far from an offensive liability (8.4 ppg, 40.8 shooting pct.) for a team in Big 12 title contention. “On good teams, you’ve got to have that one guy that’s always in the right spot, always trying to get an offensive rebound … and trying to contain a key player on another team. I think that’s what I do every game.”
Kansas coach Bill Self said the secret to Holland’s defensive strength is his quickness on his first and second step while guarding opponents. Texas coach Rick Barnes said Holland’s contributions often go unnoticed by fans but not by coaches and teammates.
“All year long, I am not sure if people have appreciated what he does,” Barnes said. “I’m telling you, though, what he does and what you see him do, he does it every day in practice. He’s a competitor.”