Let this Selection Sunday stand as a ringing and overdue endorsement for SMU, the best men’s basketball team from Texas that no one knows outside of the crazed devotees hooked on Moody Madness.
Consider this a day of validation for Baylor, which will be heading to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
But understand that, despite the favorable seeds assigned to the Mustangs (No. 6) and Bears (No. 3) in this week’s Big Dance, today’s buzz around the Lone Star State will be about the back-door access granted into the 68-team field for Texas (20-13), a No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region.
Not only did the Longhorns fail to win half of their league games as a Big 12 member, they plummeted from No. 6 in The Associated Press poll on Dec. 1 to seventh in the final conference standings. The Longhorns also grabbed the seventh, and final, berth awarded Sunday to a Big 12 team to participate in March Madness.
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They will be one of five teams from the Lone Star State in the field, joining SMU, Baylor, Stephen F. Austin (No. 12 seed, South Region) and Texas Southern (No. 15 seed, West Region).
Rest assured, if the Big 12 had received this much respect from the College Football Playoff selection committee, Baylor or TCU would have cracked the four-team bracket instead of Ohio State.
But that is how things work when your football bracket is too small to include all viable contenders and your basketball bracket is so bloated that at-large berths are handed out like discount coupons at a fast-food restaurant.
Until last year, the Big 12 had not sent a team to the NCAA Tournament with a losing record in conference play. This year, it will send two: Texas and Oklahoma State (18-13). Both advanced on league reputation, which is great if you are a Big 12 member. It’s not so good if you’re Colorado State, headed to the NIT with a 27-6 record. Or Texas A&M (20-11), which fashioned a winning record in SEC play but is headed to the NIT.
Personally, I’d endorse a rule preventing teams that posted losing records in conference play from accepting at-large bids unless they won the league’s postseason tournament title. Alas, that is not how the NCAA rolls. Especially in assessing teams from the Big 12, the league with the best RPI ranking of any conference in the country.
So … Texas coach Rick Barnes, enjoy your stay-of-execution on the job front. Just realize Tubby Smith, the current Texas Tech coach, was fired at Minnesota after being one-and-done as an NCAA participant in 2013. A wise coach would find a way to upset Butler, the Longhorns’ first-round opponent at 1:45 p.m. Thursday in Pittsburgh, if he wants to keep the wolves from circling the coach’s door in Austin while other tournament participants prepare for games during the Round of 32.
Texas’ inclusion drew scorn from CBS analyst Seth Davis, who cited the Longhorns’ 3-12 record against opponents ranked among the Top 50 in RPI as a reason to keep them out.
“If you can’t do better than that, you don’t need to be in the tournament,” Davis said during the selection show telecast.
But Scott Barnes, chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball committee (and no relation to Rick), viewed it differently. He saw a team that never lost to an opponent ranked below No. 59 in RPI while going 8-10 in the most competitive league in the country.
“Their strength of schedule was very, very good,” the chairman said. “And probably the determining factor” that put Texas in the Big Dance for the 16th time in Rick Barnes’ 17 seasons in Austin.
Sunday’s reputation vote likely extends Barnes’ tenure at Texas past this season. The Big 12’s reputation also benefited Baylor (24-9), which earned the No. 3 seed in the West Region and opens at 12:40 p.m. Thursday against Georgia State in Jacksonville, Fla. CBS analyst Clark Kellogg considers the Bears a national contender.
“I love the way this team has played of late,” Kellogg said. “They have length, athleticism, shot-making, zone defense … Baylor has got an opportunity to reach the Final Four.”
So, too, could SMU. The Mustangs (27-6), left out of the NCAA field a year ago, left nothing to chance by knocking off Connecticut 62-54 in Sunday’s title game of the American Athletic Conference tournament. That sealed an NCAA bid for the Mustangs, who will be making their first NCAA appearance since 1993.
SMU, the No. 6 seed in the South Region, opens at 2:10 p.m. Thursday against UCLA in Louisville, Ky.
“They have really rebounded well from the distractions of the early season,” said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, citing a 2-3 start during a nonconference stretch marked by two player ineligibilities. “They have so much size and they’re so good defensively, they take you out of your game.”
Now, the Mustangs are part of a five-team contingent from the Lone Star State headed to the Big Dance. Unlike others in the dance party, they leaned on a championship, not a reputation, to take them there.
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The No. 1s
Kentucky (Midwest): Perennial SEC champion Wildcats (34-0) are trying to be the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. Kentucky reached the title game in Arlington a year ago.
Villanova (East): The Wildcats (32-2) probably are the most anonymous top seed in recent memory, but they have won 15 straight in earning their second No. 1 seed in their history.
Wisconsin (West): The Badgers (31-3) earned the first No. 1 seed in program history after beating Michigan State in overtime to win the Big Ten tournament. The Badgers lost to Kentucky in the Final Four last year.
Duke (South): The Blue Devils (29-4) earned a top seed despite failing to win the ACC or its tournament. In its 20th straight tournament appearance, Duke is chasing its fifth national title.
11. Texas vs. 6. Butler, 1:45 p.m. Thursday, KTVT/11
3. Baylor vs. 14. Georgia State, 1:40 p.m. Thursday, TBS
2. Arizona vs. 15. Texas Southern, 1:10 p.m. Thursday, TNT
6. SMU vs. 11. UCLA, 2:10 p.m. Thursday, truTV
5. Utah vs. 12. SFA, 6:27 p.m. Thursday, truTV