Men's Basketball

SMU sitting pretty, but Texas, Texas A&M ride slippery bubble

SMU’s Ryan Manuel, from left, Nic Moore and Sterling Brown  huddle near the end of a 69-56 win Saturday against Temple in the AAC semifinals.
SMU’s Ryan Manuel, from left, Nic Moore and Sterling Brown huddle near the end of a 69-56 win Saturday against Temple in the AAC semifinals. TNS

This time around, SMU basketball fans can revel in the joy of Selection Sunday rather than the heartbreak.

Baylor fans, for the first time in school history, can count on their team making it to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. The records and the RPI rankings for the Mustangs (26-6) and Bears (24-9) simply are too good to ignore when members of the NCAA selection committee unveil their 68-team bracket Sunday afternoon.

SMU, which won the American Athletic Conference regular-season title, will play for the league’s automatic NCAA berth in Sunday’s final of the conference tournament in Hartford, Conn. (2:15 p.m., ESPN). The Mustangs are headed to their first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 1993 regardless of the result.

That represents a far cry from last season, when SMU officials held a watch party on Selection Sunday and watched 68 other teams accept NCAA invitations. SMU, left out of the loop, headed to the NIT. There will be no repeat this year, considering the Mustangs are No. 14 nationally in RPI and have been one of the nation’s hottest teams for the past six weeks.

Baylor, likewise, can be confident its No. 10 ranking in the latest RPI will yield a favorable seed in next week’s tournament. But for the rest of Texas’ college basketball teams, NCAA berths are not a given.

Stephen F. Austin (29-4) earned an automatic NCAA berth Saturday night by beating Sam Houston State (25-8) in the Southland Conference final, while Texas Southern (22-12) earned an automatic berth in the SWAC final. But the league’s two highest-profile schools, Texas (20-13) and Texas A&M (20-11), will be sweating heavily during Sunday’s telecast that reveals the bracket.

Both teams squandered double-digit leads Thursday while bowing out of their respective conference tournaments, leaving their postseason destinations in limbo. An NIT matchup between the rivals is not out of the question. Neither is the possibility of facing one another in Dayton, Ohio, during a First Four matchup of NCAA Tournament squeeze-ins.

The bigger question, from a Texas standpoint, rests with what happens to coach Rick Barnes based on Sunday’s announcement. Missing the NCAA Tournament field for the second time in three seasons could be catastrophic for Barnes’ continued employment in Austin, particularly after the Longhorns climbed to No. 6 in The Associated Press poll in December before backsliding with an 8-10 mark in Big 12 play.

In league history, only one team (Oklahoma State, last year) has received an at-large berth in the NCAA field with a losing record in conference play. The Longhorns, who rank No. 43 in RPI, could follow suit this season. But there is no denying Texas lacks the type of high-profile victories that other hopefuls can bring to the table for consideration.

Of the Longhorns’ nine victories against Big 12 foes (including one in the league tournament), five came against teams with losing records that will not be headed to the postseason, Texas Tech and Kansas State. Two others came against TCU (18-15), which hopes to land an NIT bid but may wind up in the CBI tournament.

Texas was swept by Oklahoma State (18-13), which also posted an 8-10 mark during regular-season play and seeks an at-large berth. So the primary drama Sunday surrounds the Longhorns and how an NCAA snub might impact Barnes’ status at the school.

Does Texas deserve an NCAA berth?

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” said Barnes, who has seen fellow Big 12 coaches espouse the Longhorns’ merits the past week in Kansas City, Mo.

A&M’s chances for an NCAA berth, which would be the school’s first since 2011, are longer than Texas’ because the Aggies laid an egg as a bubble team at the SEC Tournament. A&M fell 66-59 to an Auburn team with a losing record that the Aggies pounded twice by double-digit margins during the regular season. The ill-timed loss marked a poor final impression to leave with the selection committee for a team ranked No. 66 in RPI, outside the typical range of NCAA at-large invitees.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, although projections Saturday by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm showed Texas squeaking into the field and A&M being left out. Lunardi had Texas as a No. 11 seed while Palm had the ’Horns at No. 9. Both men projected SMU as a No. 6 seed, with Baylor at No. 3 (Palm) or No. 4 (Lunardi). Palm had A&M as one of his first four teams left out, meaning wiggle room is possible before the bracket is finalized.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a Dallas resident who led three college programs to postseason berths during his coaching career (Manhattan College, St. John’s and New Mexico), considers both SMU and Baylor as viable threats to reach the Sweet 16. After that, Fraschilla said additional victories would come down to matchups. Both teams, he predicted, will be tall tasks for first-round opponents.

“Baylor plays a matchup zone that’s really tough for opponents to deal with,” Fraschilla said, citing that tactic as a key reason the Bears are 17-4 in their past five postseason tournaments under coach Scott Drew (three NCAAs, two NITs). “Scott’s postseason record is on pace with anyone in the country.”

Yet, he points to SMU as the Texas-based team he would least like to prepare for as an opposing coach.

“They’re so good defensively, they take you out of your game,” Fraschilla said. “SMU, with what they’ve done, they’d be the one I wouldn’t want to play.”

Unlike last season, when SMU was snubbed on Selection Sunday, these Mustangs will get a chance to back up Fraschilla’s words when the NCAA Tournament starts next week. The only question is who else from Texas, other than Baylor, will be joining them.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

Texas teams’

tournament hopes

A look at college teams from the Lone Star State that have the best chances of hearing their names called to participate in the NCAA Tournament. Included are Saturday seed projections from two noted bracketologists, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBSSports.com’s

Jerry Palm:

SMU (26-6)

Lunardi: No. 6

Palm: No. 6

Baylor (24-9)

Lunardi: No. 4

Palm: No. 3

Texas (20-13)

Lunardi: No. 11

Palm: No. 9

Texas A&M (20-11)

Lunardi: No bid

Palm: No bid

SFA (29-4)

Lunardi: No. 12

Palm: No. 13

UTEP (22-10)

Lunardi: No bid

Palm: No bid

Sam Houston State (25-8)

Lunardi: No bid

Palm: No bid

TCU (18-15)

Lunardi: No bid

Palm: No bid

Texas Southern (22-12)

Lunardi: No. 16

Palm: No. 15

Selection Sunday

The NCAA Tournament for men’s basketball begins Tuesday and Wednesday with the First Four games in the 68-team bracket to be selected Sunday. The second- and third-round games are Thursday through March 22 at eight sites.

▪ NCAA Selection Show, 5 p.m. CDT, KTVT/11 (CBS)

▪ NIT Selection Show, 7:30 p.m. CDT, ESPNU

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