Call it a hit-and-miss performance by members of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee on Selection Sunday as we take our first steps toward the Final Four in Arlington.
Some of Sunday’s biggest hits:• Baylor, the most talented college basketball team in Texas, earned the nod over Texas to play its first two games in San Antonio while the Longhorns got shipped to Milwaukee. Baylor, a No. 6 seed in the West Region, defeated the Longhorns 86-69 in Saturday’s semifinals of the Big 12 conference tournament and finished with a significant edge in overall strength of schedule (No. 4 nationally vs. No. 39). Hence, the Longhorns head to Milwaukee as a No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region.
• Stephen F. Austin, the team with the state’s best record (31-2), earned a No. 12 seed, unusually high for a Southland Conference champion. But the Lumberjacks, who own the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 28 games, deserved the bump and project to be a handful for VCU in the teams’ opening matchup in the South Regional. The ’Jacks even got some overdue national love on CBS when the bracket was unveiled.
“I like Stephen F. Austin. I think they’re going to be the surprise of this tournament and get to the Sweet 16,” said Seth Davis, basketball reporter for CBSSports.com and Sports Illustrated. Seth is right. If you’re looking for this year’s bracket-busting equivalent to Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, the Lumberjacks are your guys.• Ron Wellman, the committee chairman, said relaxed bracketing principles in place for the first time this season allowed committee members to place all 68 teams in the field without shifting any team’s true seed line for logistical reasons.
“It’s the first time in the five years that I’ve been on the committee that has happened,” Wellman said.
Some of Sunday’s biggest misses:• SMU, easily the best story of any NCAA hopeful from the Lone Star State, was relegated to the NIT as the first team out of the Big Dance.
The Mustangs, under second-year coach Larry Brown, fell short with a 23-9 record because of a soft nonconference schedule (No. 302 among 350 teams eligible for the tournament).
While that cannot be debated, neither can the fact that the Mustangs swept Connecticut, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, in two regular-season meetings. SMU also posted a 4-4 combined record against UConn, Louisville (No. 4 seed, Midwest), Cincinnati (No. 5 seed, East) and Memphis (No. 8 seed, East), their primary conference rivals. I join ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who tweeted that the Ponies “belong in the Dance.”
In explaining the rationale to omit SMU, Wellman said: “The glaring weakness about SMU was their schedule.” Among the at-large teams granted entry to the tournament, Wellman said the lowest overall strength-of-schedule ranking was No. 91. SMU’s was No. 129, counting both conference and non-conference games.• The Midwest Region, where Wichita State (34-0) earned the No. 1 seed, is too top heavy in relation to other regions. It contains third-seed Duke, plus three of last year’s Final Four teams: Wichita State, Michigan and Louisville, the defending national champion.
By comparison, the top four teams in the much-softer East are Virginia, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State. Louisville (29-5), in particular, was way undervalued by the committee. On a neutral court, you’d think Louisville would be favored over Virginia despite their disparity in seeds.• New Mexico (27-6), winner of the Mountain West tournament, earned a No. 7 seed in the South Region with basically the same personnel returning from last year’s team that received a No. 3 seed.
Other than a handful of whiffs, the committee produced a compelling bracket that will make it difficult to project the four schools that reach the 2014 Final Four at AT&T Stadium, April 5 and 7.
As expected, the Big 12 landed the most NCAA Tournament berths of any conference (7). One league team that really likes its chances is Baylor (24-11). The Bears enter the tournament with a 10-2 record in their past 12 games and will play their first two games within driving distance of the school’s Waco campus, starting with Friday’s matchup in San Antonio against Nebraska (19-12).
“Nobody wants to see us,” said Isaiah Austin, a center from Arlington Grace Prep who was named to the Big 12’s all-tournament team in Kansas City.
“We’re going to be a scary team for the rest of this month.”
After Sunday’s bracket was announced, Baylor coach Scott Drew said: “Our team is extremely excited to be in the tournament, and even more excited to be playing in San Antonio. Our fans will be able to drive down … and make a big impact on the game.
“The Big 12 prepares you for any style of play, because you face so many of them and see so many great players. Having our backs against the wall [in recent weeks] … helps prepare you for the NCAA Tournament, because you have to be sharp each day.
“If you don’t win down the stretch like we did, we wouldn’t have been in this situation. Hopefully, that will pay dividends.”
The proof comes later this week, when Baylor joins 67 other teams in taking its first steps toward a possible Final Four trip to Arlington.