That includes UT. Under NCAA rules, host teams don’t play at their own arena, but the 16-17 Longhorns won’t be in the tournament at all this season, breaking a streak of fourteen consecutive appearances for head coach Rick Barnes. (Before the season’s final home game against Baylor, Mike Finger, who covers the team for the San Antonio Express-News, was reading the Wikipedia entry for the College Basketball Invitational, a third-tier consolation tournament that nobody in Austin ever had to know about before.)
It isn’t just the Horns. Baylor, which fell one win short of the Final Four in both 2010 and 2012,lost nine of its last thirteen games this season, making it a longshot for the field of 68. Texas A&M finished eleventh in its first season as a member of the fourteen-team Southeastern Conference. Even North Texas, a preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt behind a potential NBA lottery draft pick, Tony Mitchell, went 12-20. As recently as 2010, the state of Texas tied an NCAA record for the most teams from a single state in the tournament with seven: UT, Baylor, Texas A&M, North Texas, Houston, UTEP, and Sam Houston State. This season, barring any conference tournament surprises (always a possibility), its hopes were pinned entirely to Stephen F. Austin, which was expected to win the Southland Conference tournament Saturday, but lost 66-68 to Northwestern State. Since the Lumberjacks fell short, Texas will be absent from March Madness for the first time since 1977, when the term March Madness didn’t yet exist.
The dismal season is due to both some unexpected setbacks at specific schools and some larger trends in college basketball, including players leaving for the NBA and an unprecedented stretch of conference realignment. “It’s a confluence of events that has created a transition period for many of the programs in the state,” said Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN college basketball analyst.
UT, which lost two freshmen and one sophomore to the 2011 NBA draft, saw its season go awry when sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo was suspended for 23 games by the NCAA. He accepted $475 worth of “impermissible benefits,” from someone apparently associated with a player agent, then provided “false and misleading information” to school officials.
Texas A&M, which qualified for the tournament for six straight seasons under former coaches Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon, is adjusting to the SEC and second-year coach Billy Kennedy, who is battling Parkinson’s disease.
And Gillispie, who had a history of turning around programs in his second season, never got one up at Texas Tech. The former Kentucky, A&M and UTEP coach resigned amid controversy (but officially for health reasons) in September. Chris Walker took over as interim coach, which meant that Tech joined TCU (Trent Johnson), SMU (Larry Brown) and North Texas (Tony Benford) as teams with rookie coaches. Changes at the conference level have been head-spinning as well. SMU, for instance, hired Brown, a championship coach in both the NCAA and the NBA, to ramp up the program for next year’s switch to the Big East (which the University of Houston will also make). Since then, the Big East has lost seven of its signature basketball schools, along with the actual Big East name. The University of Texas at San Antonio, which won its first tournament game ever, as the Southland Conference champion in 2011, struggled in the Western Athletic Conference this year, and it will probably struggle more in Conference U.S.A. next season.
“It’s had a tremendous impact,” Lynn Hickey, UTSA’s athletic director, said of the realignment. The school was able to punch its ticket to a stronger conference, thanks to adding football in 2011, but the school’s basketball program faces a long journey.
“The level of competition, the size of the student-athletes you’re competing against, is very different,” Hickey said. “We’ve got some major steps to take forward, and I think one of the sports it’s going to be most difficult for is basketball.”
“I think it’s cyclical,” Fraschilla said of the poor showing by Texas collegiate basketball teams. “I think this is a momentary blip in what’s been a great run since the late seventies. I think you’ll see some programs that are down at the moment bouncing back really quickly.”
One thing the state doesn’t lack for is raw talent at the high school level. Unfortunately, the best Texas-native player in the country this season is Flower Mound’s Marcus Smart, who plays for Oklahoma State. And top recruits from Richmond and DeSoto have already signed with Kentucky and Duke. That leaves Plano’s Julius Randle, who is U.T.’s biggest target (“a 6-foot-9 life raft,” Mark Rosner of the Austin American-Statesman, said before that Baylor game) but is coveted by Kansas too.
“The whole formula in the state of Texas is for these programs and coaches to make sure that the best in-state players stay home,” Fraschilla said. “Which is easier said than done.”
Of course, in Texas, basketball is always second fiddle. “Football season is over, folks,” former UT and U of H coach Tom Penders wrote on Twitter when he saw spotty attendance at some early January Big 12 games. “It must be deer season.”