The NCAA calls this Selection Sunday. But for college basketball teams in the Lone Star State, it is more than that.
It is the first step on the Road to Redemption after last year’s historic, and embarrassing, Texas Shutout.
Thanks to some tall, talented student-athletes from five Texas colleges — Baylor, Texas, SMU, Stephen F. Austin and Texas Southern — you can expect to hear some familiar names when Ron Wellman, chairman of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee, releases the competitors in the 68-team bracket.
There is no guarantee that any Texas team taking part in the nation’s favorite office pool will make the short commute to the 2014 Final Four, April 5 and 7 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. In fact, all will be considered long shots. Do not expect any of the entrants to receive better than a No. 6 seed in its regional.
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But this is a guarantee: The state has a 100 percent better chance at having some local representation in JerryWorld than it had in reaching last year’s Final Four, when Texas’ 21 major-college men’s basketball programs went a collective 0 for 21 in landing berths to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
It marked the first time since 1977 that the entire state whiffed on March Madness. But it can’t happen again this year.
SFA and Texas Southern sealed a return engagement by winning Saturday’s all-Texas title games in their respective leagues (Southland, SWAC). Baylor played Iowa State in the final of the Big 12 tournament knowing the Bears were in line for an at-large berth, regardless of the outcome. Texas (23-10) and No. 25 SMU (23-9) left their league tournaments expecting at-large invitations to the Big Dance as well.
So the Lone Star State is back in the hunt for its first NCAA men’s basketball championship since Texas Western (now UTEP) won the 1966 crown. Among the projected participants, look for Baylor, SMU and Texas to have the best opportunities to advance to the Sweet Sixteen round. Baylor (24-11), in particular, could push it even further if the Bears can build on recent momentum that saw them post a 10-1 record in their past 11 games before Saturday’s narrow loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 final.
“I feel like we’re doing good, but this ain’t it. There’s more to this team than what we’ve been doing,” Baylor forward Rico Gathers said after his team’s 86-69 victory over Texas in the Big 12 tourney semifinals.
Texas coach Rick Barnes said Baylor “may be the hottest team in the country” among national title contenders from power conferences. And he’ll seek to elevate the mindset of the Longhorns, who have lost five of their past eight games, before their NCAA opener.
“We’ve got one more tournament,” Barnes said. “We’ve got to get to playing the best we can play. Baylor’s doing that right now. I thought we were heading that way, but we didn’t get it done [in Kansas City]. I’m shocked. It baffles me.”
One team definitely getting it done is SFA (31-2), owner of the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 28 games. Only undefeated Wichita State (34-0), No. 2 in the AP poll and soon-to-be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, has gone longer without a loss than the Lumberjacks, who have not tasted defeat since losing Nov. 23 at East Tennessee State 66-58.
Do not be surprised if the ’Jacks stun some name-brand opponent as a double-digit NCAA seed, much as Florida Gulf Coast did while reaching the Sweet Sixteen in last year’s event. SFA has lots of depth, experience and quickness among its guard-oriented, nine-player rotation. The Lumberjacks also have a combined 58-7 mark the past two seasons and will be hungry to strut their stuff after missing out on last year’s NCAA Tournament despite a 27-5 record.
Included are four double-digit scorers: forward Jacob Parker (14.3 ppg, 6.9 rebounds) and guards Desmond Haymon (14.6 ppg), Thomas Walkup (12.7 ppg) and Deshaunt Walker (12.0 ppg). SFA ranks among the nation’s top 10 teams in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.49), assists per game (16.4) and scoring margin (plus-12.6).
From a historic standpoint, Texas’ biggest breakthrough belongs to SMU. The Mustangs, 15-17 last season, are preparing to celebrate their first NCAA berth since 1993 under second-year coach Larry Brown.
“I talked about it last year. We’ve talked about it from Day One,” Brown said about getting the Mustangs back in the Big Dance. “We asked these guys to come here and feel like they’ll play in the tournament every year. Now, it’s right there for us to do.”
SMU, as well as the other Texas-based schools headed to the 2014 tournament, should learn their first-game matchups during CBS’ NCAA Selection Show (5 p.m., KTVT/Ch. 11). Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, a former member of the selection committee, will be watching in anticipation of seeing his 10-member league land seven teams in the field: a 70 percent admission rate that is expected to rank as the nation’s highest in 2014.
“I’m fairly comfortable that we will have seven in. I don’t think there will be any other conference that has 70 percent of their teams in the field,” said Bowlsby, who expects Baylor and Oklahoma State, a pair of former top-10 teams in the January college polls, to rank among the toughest early matchups faced by elite teams on opening weekend.
“The projections are that Baylor and OSU may go in as 8 or 9 seeds,” Bowlsby said. “I can tell you, having seeded the tournament a few times, that you wouldn’t want to draw either team as a 9 seed.”
But the bigger story, at least in Texas, is that five local teams can expect to be seeded on Selection Sunday. That’s quite an improvement after last year’s Texas Shutout.