The brackets are set and the deadline to enter your office pool coincides with Thursday’s first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
With winners of the First Four games in Dayton now in the mix to reach the Final Four in Houston, it’s time to take a critical look at what to expect from teams with regional ties in March Madness.
This looms as a big year for the Big 12, which has a “best conference in college basketball” reputation to uphold, and an even bigger tournament for teams from Texas, a state that produced its lone NCAA champion 50 years ago.
Having the Final Four at NRG Stadium in Houston could be a title-seeking boost for any Texas team that advances to the final stage of the three-week event. But can any of the five participants from the Lone Star State win the four games necessary to play in H-Town? Or will they get bounced, as usual, by traditional powers with better track records in this event?
Could the Big 12, which holds the nation’s highest RPI of any conference, produce its first Final Four participant since 2012? Might the league send multiple teams to Houston, considering three schools are seeded among the top three in their regions: No. 1 Kansas (30-4, South), No. 2 Oklahoma (25-7, West) and No. 3 West Virginia (26-8, East)?
Could any of the Texas-based schools from the Big 12 step up and make a statement for their league as well as the Lone Star State? It’s not far-fetched to believe No. 5 Baylor (22-11, West), No. 6 Texas (20-12, West) or No. 8 Texas Tech (19-12, Midwest) could make some noise.
11 Consecutive victories by Kansas, the Big 12 champion and top-ranked team in the NCAA field.
But the state’s highest seed belongs to No. 3 Texas A&M (26-8, West), which shared the SEC regular-season championship with Kentucky and closed on an uptick. The best record belongs to Stephen F. Austin (27-5), a No. 14 seed in the East that is playing in its third consecutive NCAA tournament and won its opening game in 2014 as a No. 12 seed.
Under the postseason pressure, which teams will step up … or step back? Oddsmakers at Bovada Sports Book have handicapped this group, estimating each team’s chance to win it all or at least reach the Final Four. We’ll offer those digits, as well as feedback about which teams are overrated, underrated or properly pegged for the postseason. Today’s opinion is provided by Dr. Makum Playbetter, a certified bracketologist with a PhD in hoops sciences from the John Wooden Institute:
Texas A&M (33-1 title odds; 6-1 to reach Final Four): Underrated. The Aggies (26-8) return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years but arrive with four seniors in the starting lineup, including two savvy guards (Anthony Collins, Alex Caruso) who can run the offense. Between them, Collins and Caruso average 9.4 assists per game against only 3.6 turnovers. There are double-digit scorers at center (Tyler Davis, 11.1), forward (Jalen Jones, 15.5) and guard (Danuel House, 15.5), plus ample depth. The Aggies, 8-1 in their last nine games, should reach the Sweet 16. Once there, they are capable of taking down Oklahoma or Oregon, the only teams seeded ahead of them in the West Region.
Baylor (66-1 title odds; 10-1 to reach Final Four): Properly pegged. The pieces exist for a deep tournament run, but backcourt depth and consistency are questions for the Bears (22-11). Baylor’s inside trio (Taurean Prince, Rico Gathers, Johnathan Motley) is one of the best in the tournament and could carry the team to the Sweet 16, maybe farther, if the guards step up. The Bears are nicely positioned in the West bracket, with winnable games against higher-seeded teams from Duke (23-10) and Oregon (28-6) on the path to the Final Four if those matchups unfold.
Texas (66-1 title odds; 15-2 to reach Final Four): Overrated. The inconsistent Longhorns (20-12) have a ledger that includes a victory over North Carolina, the top seed in the East Region, and a loss to TCU, which fired its coach after a 12-21 season. Two key players (guard Isaiah Taylor, center Cameron Ridley) battled foot-related injuries during last week’s one-and-done outing at the Big 12 tournament. Texas has not won more than six consecutive games at any point this season. The Longhorns struggle against teams with powerful inside games but have a strong, deep backcourt that makes them dangerous when that is the deciding factor in contests.
Texas Tech (500-1 title odds; 40-1 to reach Final Four): Overrated. The Red Raiders (19-12) are capable of red-hot shooting nights from the perimeter, particularly guards Toddrick Gotcher (11.1 points per game), Devaughntah Williams (10.6) and Keenan Evans (8.8). But the inside players are undersized and do not rebound at a level that suggests impending success in the Big Dance. The first-round draw (Butler) is tough and the likely second-round foe (Virginia) will be even tougher for a team that lost three games to schools that did not make the NCAA field (TCU, Arkansas, Kansas State).
Stephen F. Austin (1,000-1 title odds; 100-1 to reach Final Four): Underrated. If not for an opening matchup against a team with comparable backcourt strength and Final Four talent (West Virginia), the Lumberjacks (27-4) would be a trendy darkhorse pick for the Sweet 16. As it stands, do-it-all guard Thomas Walkup and his SFA teammates will be a handful for the Mountaineers.
50 Years since the last NCAA men’s basketball title by a team from Texas. Texas Western (now UTEP) won the crown in 1966.
Kansas (5-1 title odds; 3-2 to reach Final Four): Properly pegged. As the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s mathematically impossible for the Jayhawks (30-4) to be underrated. Little that has transpired during the team’s 11-game winning streak suggests they are overrated, either.
Oklahoma (14-1 title odds; 9-4 to reach Final Four): Properly pegged. The Sooners (25-7) lean on Buddy Hield, the most prolific scorer in college basketball, and project to play their first two games in front of home crowds in Oklahoma City. When Hield’s teammates are making their shots, OU can beat anybody in the country. When they’re not, Hield is capable of carrying the team for long stretches.
West Virginia (25-1 title odds; 4-1 to reach Final Four): Underrated. Burly forward Devin Williams (13.3 points per game, 9.3 rebounds) usually has his way inside, which pairs well with a pressure-heavy defense loaded with disruptive guards (Jaysean Paige, Daxter Miles, Jevon Carter, Tarik Phillip). In a tournament usually ruled by teams with strong backcourts, the Mountaineers (26-8) bring one to the table.
Iowa State (50-1 title odds; 15-2 to reach Final Four): Overrated. The Cyclones (21-11) have some talented tournament veterans, led by forward Georges Niang, guard Monte Morris and forward Jameel McKay. The up-tempo style is refreshing to watch, with seven double-digit scorers on the roster. But the bottom line shows this team is 7-9 when playing outside of Ames, Iowa. And ISU has played its last game in Ames this season.
Texas Tech vs. Butler
11:40 a.m., truTV
Iowa State vs. Iona
1 p.m., TBS
Baylor vs. Yale
1:45 p.m., KTVT/11
Kansas vs. Austin Peay
3 p.m., TNT