Three months of mixed reviews from men’s college basketball outposts across the Lone Star State have triggered a complicated answer to a simple question: Which school has the best team in Texas?
This week’s Associated Press poll includes two teams, No. 20 Baylor (19-7) and No. 21 SMU (21-5). Seven schools from the state, including TCU (15-10) and Texas (17-9), have been ranked or received votes in AP polls this season.
But none of the seven is Texas Tech (12-15), which owns arguably the state’s most impressive victory of the season, a 78-73 upset of then-No. 9 Iowa State. Texas A&M, which has yet to crack the Top 25, turned in the most memorable performance: a 70-64 loss to top-ranked Kentucky in double overtime.
The contest remains Kentucky’s closest brush with defeat while posting a 26-0 record as the nation’s only undefeated team. If the Aggies (18-7) had made more than 53.3 percent of their free throws in that Jan. 10 contest (16 of 30), they would own the biggest upset of the season.
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But members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee do not grade on the curve or distribute at-large bids based on near-upsets. Nor do they cut any slack to teams that lose their starting point guard to a broken wrist for 10 games (Texas) or have two notable players sidelined for extended stretches because of academic reasons (SMU).
When at-large bids are extended to participate in March Madness, teams need high-profile victories and lots of them. A lack of notable wins despite enviable records explains why Stephen F. Austin (21-4), Sam Houston State (21-5) and UTEP (18-7) would be well-served to win their conference tournaments to gain automatic NCAA berths. The same is true for UT Arlington (14-10) in the Sun Belt and Texas Southern (12-12), a front-runner to repeat as SWAC champion.
A projection of the 68-team field for next month’s NCAA Tournament by USA Today included five schools from the Lone Star State. In order of best-to-worst seed, the list identified Baylor (4), SMU (6), Texas (8), SFA (13) and Texas Southern (16). Texas A&M was among the first four teams left out the field.
But projections can be radically altered with late-season surges or slumps, just like the weekly polls. That is why it remains difficult to pinpoint the state’s top team or its most likely candidate to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a Dallas resident who led three programs to the postseason during his coaching career (Manhattan College, St. John’s, New Mexico), said a case could be made for at least three schools having the state’s top team. And it projects to be a source of lively debate throughout the postseason, centered primarily on Baylor, SMU and Texas.
“Right now, the perception would be that SMU is the best team in the state because they have the best record,” Fraschilla said before Monday’s telecast of West Virginia’s 62-61 victory over Kansas in Morgantown, W.Va. “They have really rebounded well from the distractions of the early season to be 21-5. But if you put them in the Big 12, I think they’d have more than five losses. And a Big 12 fan would say, ‘I’m not sure they’re better than Texas or Baylor.’”
Nor is Fraschilla convinced the higher-profile schools would take down SFA or Sam Houston State, the two front-runners for the Southland Conference title, on a neutral court in March. But he’s confident the state, which had zero participants in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, should have at least a fistful for the second consecutive season.
“It shows college basketball in Texas is starting to cycle back up,” Fraschilla said. “I don’t think there’s a Final Four team among them. The best-case scenario for all the teams probably is to get in and win a couple of games and get to the Sweet 16.”
In head-to-head meetings between the state’s most likely NCAA participants, Baylor is 4-0 against Texas, Texas A&M, SFA and Texas Southern. But all four victories came in Waco, which could skew the value of those triumphs with committee members just like it did with the CFP selection committee in football.
Baylor coach Scott Drew understands the fluid nature of his team’s situation, particularly with remaining road games against No. 14 Iowa State (Feb. 25) and Texas (March 2) on the regular-season schedule.
“In the Big 12, we know it’s always, ‘On to the next game,’” Drew said. “Every game, if you’re not at your best, you’re going to lose. It doesn’t matter what we did in the last game. We know what’s ahead. We either keep getting better or we get worse. We like this team’s leadership. We like their competitiveness. And I’m sure we’ll get better.”
If that happens, the Bears probably enter the NCAA Tournament as the highest-seeded team from Texas. If not, that distinction could fall to SMU, Texas, Texas A&M … or SFA, which reached the Round of 32 in last year’s NCAA Tournament and saw a 20-game winning streak snapped with Sunday’s 71-63 loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
But as a member of the Southland Conference, it would be almost impossible for SFA or league rival Sam Houston State to land anything better than a No. 12 seed. Even without conference tournament titles, history suggests Baylor, SMU, Texas or Texas A&M would be at least a No. 12 seed as at-large invitees. The issue, of course, is doing enough to earn those bids.
SMU officials held an watch party last season in anticipation of an at-large NCAA bid that never came. But the Mustangs are back in that mix despite academic issues that have sidelined guard Keith Frazier (ineligible the remainder of the season) and forward Markus Kennedy (active now, missed the first 10 games).
SMU has persevered, said coach Larry Brown, because of a powerful inside game that includes Kennedy, center Yanick Moreira, center Cannen Cunningham and forward Ben Moore crashing the boards and balancing the scoring load to complement point guard Nic Moore, the team’s leader in points (14.4 average), assists (5.4) and steals (1.4).
“Our bigs are long but they’re also active and they can move their feet. They don’t get lost on [defensive] switches,” Brown said. “Most people we play comment on our bigs and how mobile and active they are.”
But history shows teams that make deep NCAA Tournament runs typically do so on the backs of dependable veteran guards. SMU’s Moore certainly qualifies, along with A&M’s Alex Caruso, Baylor’s Kenny Chery and Texas’ Isaiah Taylor.
Caruso, who leads the Aggies in assists (5.8) and steals (1.9), identified January road victories over LSU (67-64), Tennessee (67-61) and Auburn (71-61) as pivotal in building the psyche of a team seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011.
“I’ve gotten over the part where I’m worried about how we’re going to play on the road,” said Caruso, a junior. “My freshman and sophomore year, I had some woes going on the road, wondering what team we were going to get. But I have a pretty good feeling this team is going to show up every game now.”
Texas coach Rick Barnes, whose team reached No. 6 in the AP poll on Dec. 1 before falling out of the rankings Feb. 9 in the wake of a four-game losing streak, understands about inconsistent play.
“It’s a fine line, mentally,” Barnes said. “You can’t ever be hesitant playing any game. But we’ve had doubt at times. I don’t understand why. Our real problem has been consistency.”
Across the state, that’s a familiar refrain. It explains why it is so difficult to identify the best team in Texas.
But as a former coach, Fraschilla knows which school he would be least excited to face in the NCAA Tournament. He took Texas off the table because the Longhorns “don’t have the kind of scoring they need to be an elite team this year” despite lofty preseason projections.
“I wouldn’t want to play SMU because they’re so good defensively and take you out of your game,” Fraschilla said. “Baylor would be hard to play, too, because they’re a very tough, hard-nosed team. But SMU, with what they’ve done, they’d be the one I wouldn’t want to play.”
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
A look at the movement of Texas’ college basketball teams in the AP poll during selected weeks this season:
Preseason: No. 10 Texas, No. 22 SMU. Receiving votes: Baylor, SFA, UTEP
Dec. 1: No. 6 Texas. Receiving votes: Baylor, TCU
Dec. 22: No. 9 Texas, No. 22 Baylor, No. 25 TCU
Feb. 2: No. 19 Baylor, No. 23 SMU, No. 25 Texas. Receiving votes: Texas A&M, SFA
Feb. 9: No. 16 Baylor, No. 25 SMU. Receiving votes: Texas, SFA, Texas A&M
Monday: No. 20 Baylor, No. 21 SMU. Receiving votes: Texas, Texas A&M