SMU, Texas offer state’s best NCAA tournament hopes

We are 47 days from Selection Sunday for the 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. And teams from the Lone Star State barely made a ripple in this week’s Associated Press poll.

No. 25 Texas (16-4, 5-2 in Big 12) grabbed the last available spot. SMU (16-4, 5-2 in American) received three votes. Baylor, the nation’s No. 7 team just three weeks ago, dropped out of the rankings because the Bears (13-6, 1-5 in Big 12) dragged a four-game losing streak into Tuesday night’s game against West Virginia.

All of this creates angst for local fans who watched Texas teams get shut out of last year’s NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1977. The only thing worse would be another 0-for-21 effort by the state’s Division I programs in 2014 with the Final Four headed to Arlington, April 5-7 at AT&T Stadium.

Sadly, it’s possible. Happily, it’s unlikely.

Based on recent returns, you’ve got to pencil in Texas and SMU for at-large berths. Baylor, with two NBA-caliber players on its front line (center Isaiah Austin, forward Cory Jefferson), is too talented to be written off … yet. And it would be no surprise if Stephen F. Austin (18-2, 7-0 in Southland) and UTEP (14-6, 4-1 in Conference USA) won their conference tournaments to claim automatic NCAA berths.

But nothing is a given now that Baylor, the state’s most talented team, faces a daunting task to reach the .500 mark in Big 12 play. That probably is necessary for the Bears to land an at-large berth.

Baylor’s struggles make Texas and SMU, two teams that posted losing records last season, the primary banner carriers for Lone Star State basketball. At least until further notice.

The upside is that Texas, No. 30 in the latest RPI rankings, and SMU, at No. 41, appear to have the talent and depth to cap their turnaround seasons with an exclamation point, not a whimper. But the schedule is about to become daunting for both, which could stall progress.

Texas plays Saturday against No. 6 Kansas (3 p.m., Austin) to kick off a seven-game stretch that includes two games against the Jayhawks (15-4, 6-0), one against No. 8 Oklahoma State (16-4, 4-3) and road games at Kansas State (14-6, 4-3) and No. 16 Iowa State (15-3, 3-3).

SMU, after Tuesday night’s game at South Florida, has a make-or-break homestand against three league foes with significant basketball pedigrees: Saturday against No. 22 Memphis (15-4, 5-2); Feb. 6 against Temple (5-13, 0-7) and Feb. 8 against No. 13 Cincinnati (19-2, 8-0). If the Mustangs can take two of those games, that would make a statement about the team’s NCAA credential.

Unlike Texas, the Ponies already have lost at Cincinnati and at No. 12 Louisville, the defending national champion. So their two toughest road trips in conference play are in the rearview mirror and neither loss was a blowout. A strong closing surge at Moody Coliseum, where the Mustangs play six of their final nine regular-season games, makes SMU the most logical Texas team to lock up an at-large NCAA tournament berth.

If you don’t believe that, just listen to second-year coach Larry Brown, who won a national championship at Kansas (1988) and took UCLA to the national title game in 1980.

“If you have a reputation, a lot of people just assume you’re a tournament team. But we have to earn that,” Brown said in a recent interview. “We’ve talked about it from Day One. We’ve asked these guys to come here and feel like they’ll play in the tournament every year.”

Brown’s recruiting efforts have led to a strong, 10-player rotation of contributors who play at least 12 minutes per game, led by guard Nic Moore (13.4 points per game, 4.6 assists) and forward Markus Kennedy (11.2 points, 7.0 rebounds).

“Last year, we didn’t have any depth,” Brown said, reflecting on a 15-17 team in his initial season. “This year, I can play 10 or 11 guys and feel pretty confident they can all do things to give us a chance to win.”

Texas coach Rick Barnes has similar feelings about his Longhorns, who will carry a five-game winning streak into Saturday’s game against Kansas. Like Brown, he knows the next three weeks will have a lot to say about the staying power of Texas’ turnaround season.

After last week’s 74-60 victory at Baylor, Barnes said: “If you want to be really good, when you really find out how tough you are is when people are now coming after you. We’ll find out. We can talk about whatever, but we’ve just got to continue to get better. I think we are the kind of team that we have to stay on edge all the time. And I think that will be the key from here till the end of the year with how far we grow.”

As of today, the Mustangs and Longhorns look like Texas’ best bets to help the state rebound from last year’s embarrassing NCAA shutout. The other 19 teams are strongly urged to win their conference tournaments.

Spotlight: Isaiah Taylor, Texas PG

Among the myriad reasons No. 25 Texas (16-4, 5-2 in Big 12) will carry a five-game winning streak into Saturday’s matchup against No. 6 Kansas (15-4, 6-0 in Big 12), the biggest may be the rapid development of freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor.

Considered the state’s No. 13 recruit by ESPN during his senior season at The Village School in Houston, Taylor (6-foot-1, 170 pounds) has been the catalyst for a resurgent team, offering an instant infusion of confidence and scoring (11.7 points per game) while leading the team in assists (3.7) and ranking second in steals (21). Heading into Saturday’s matchup in Austin (3 p.m., ESPN), Taylor is coming off a career-best 27 point performance in a 74-60 victory over Baylor.

Taylor regularly broke down Baylor’s zone defense with dribble penetration, hitting 10-of-18 shots. But his decision-making, said coach Rick Barnes, has stood out during a five-game winning streak that has seen the Longhorns knock off Top 25 foes in each of their last three contests.

Texas, a 16-18 team last year, is back in contention to return to the NCAA Tournament with Taylor serving as the floor general for a team with no seniors and only one scholarship junior (leading scorer Jonathan Holmes, 12.9 avg.) among its primary contributors.

“I love him,” Barnes said of Taylor and his infectious self-confidence. “He and I had a little extra time after practice the other day, talking about some of his decisions and what he needs to do. He really came out (against Baylor) and tried to do the things that we talked about. That might have been his best floor game in a long time.”

It certainly was his most prolific scoring spree, with Taylor burying floaters from the lane while topping his previous high (17) by 10 points.

“That’s my game, getting to the lane and getting to my floater. Getting a lot of layups and putting pressure on the defense,” Taylor said. “I know I struggled against zones early in the season. But I’ve been working in practice on penetrating the gaps. I did that (against Baylor). On this team, we’ve got a lot of guys that can carry the scoring load each night.”


Cinderella watch: George Washington (16-3) The Colonials, No. 31 in the updated RPI rankings, are among the favorites to win the Atlantic 10, where they are 4-1 in league play. The team has four double-digit scorers, led by guard Maurice Creek (14.3 ppg) and forward Isaiah Armwood (11 ppg, 7.8 rebounds per game) and has notable nonconference victories over Creighton, Maryland, Miami, Rutgers and Georgia. The Colonials also posted a 76-66 victory over VCU, a fellow A-10 frontrunner, in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 14.

Texas connection: Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson (6-foot-7, 265 pounds), a junior from Cedar Hill, is a key figure in the Wildcats’ efforts to improve upon last year’s Big 12 co-championship with Kansas. K-State (14-6, 4-3) remained in the thick of the league race heading into Tuesday night’s game against Texas Tech, with Gipson leading the Wildcats in two statistical areas: rebounding (6.2 avg.) and field goal percentage (58.4). He ranked second in scoring (12.1 ppg) and free throw percentage (72.9).

Numbers game

2 Schools from Iowa among the nation’s top eight offensive teams. Iowa (85.3 average) is sixth; Iowa State (84.8) is eighth. Each leads its league in scoring.

2 Players from Texas colleges averaging more than five assists per game: Texas Southern’s Madarious Gibbs (5.3), Baylor’s Kenny Chery (5.1).

12.2 Rebounds per game by UNLV’s Roscoe Smith, tops in the nation.

60 Percent of Big 12 men’s basketball coaches who have taken teams to the Final Four (6 of 10, top ratio of any Division I league).

100 Percent of Big 12 men’s basketball coaches who have taken teams to the NCAA Tournament (top ratio of any Division I league).

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