You know how this works. It’s March Madness time, except COVID-weird, with little to no time in the office for bracket talk, and even less of an idea how good the teams are. Of course, how good the teams are often doesn’t matter, even in a normal season. It’s more fun—and often just as effective—to predict winners based on sentimental faves and upsets, especially when the very nature of a single-elimination tournament is randomness and luck.
This year, time-tested keys to NCAA tournament success like great defense, point-guard play, or a roster full of seniors could also be outflanked by the pandemic, whether because of positive tests or the routine-disrupting nature of the season. Think Baylor can go all the way in both tournaments? Pick ’em! Want to believe that Shaka Smart and the Longhorns are for real? Enjoy the ride! Or don’t, if you’d rather ride with Abilene Christian as your bracket buster.
All told, seven Texas teams are in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, which is being played entirely in and around the city of Indianapolis, including at Butler University’s famous Hinkle Fieldhouse (a.k.a. the gym from Hoosiers). The women’s tournament features four Texas schools, and is being held in what the Associated Press calls “the San Antonio region,” which apparently includes not only San Marcos, but also Austin. Guess that ends the breakfast taco rivalry.
The 64-team men’s bracket begins play just before noon, and number six seed Texas Tech will be the first in-state team to take the floor when it faces number eleven seed Utah State at 12:45 p.m. Central. Baylor, Houston, and Texas are seeded one, two, and three, albeit in different regions, while North Texas, Abilene Christian, and Texas Southern are trying on slippers to become the state’s Cinderella. The women’s tournament begins Sunday, with both Texas A&M and 2019 national champion Baylor—that makes them defending champions—earning number two seeds, with University of Texas as a number six and Stephen F. Austin as a twelfth seed.
Already, COVID-19 has begun its bid to be the darkest timeline Cinderella. Because of positive test results, the men’s tournament will be without six referees—they went to a steakhouse dinner, which was not supposed to be part of the Indianapolis protocol—as well as Oklahoma guard De’Vion Harmon (a Plano native). The top-ranked UConn women will have to get through at least the first two rounds without the game’s all-time winningest coach, Geno Auriemma, who tested positive earlier this week. No schools are actually out of either tournament, but COVID forced several men’s teams to withdraw from their conference tourney brackets, and the NCAA has decided that in the event of any outbreaks, a team can still compete with just five players. Try predicting that in your bracket.
Here’s how the men’s teams from Texas shake out. Next week, we’ll take a deeper look at the state’s teams in the women’s tournament.
No. 16 seed, East Region
First-round opponent: No. 1 Michigan, Saturday
How far can they go: They’ve probably gone far enough.
Here’s something you don’t normally see: Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M playing both football and basketball in the same month. The Tigers, 10–3 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and 17–8 overall, took the SWAC tournament berth from the 13–0 (16–5 overall) Panthers, scoring their fifth March Madness trip since 2014. TSU then came back from a ten-point halftime deficit to get past Mount St. Mary’s in last night’s First Four game to play their way into the 64-team bracket.
Texas Southern’s win on Thursday was their tenth straight—and probably their last of the season, unless you think a sixteen seed can beat a one for just the second time in history (we all remember the University of Maryland-Baltimore County). But even if the Tigers are likely cannon fodder for Michigan, TSU coach Johnny Jones has finally notched his first March Madness win—something he couldn’t get in eleven seasons at North Texas, nor five at LSU.
No. 14 seed, East Region
First-round opponent, No. 3 Texas
How far can they go: The second round is not out of the question, and neither is the Sweet 16.
The Southland Conference is generally the state’s best source of mid-major hope. Stephen F. Austin made the Sweet 16 in 2014, and the second round for two years after that, all as a double-digit seed. As the Ringer’s Rodger Sherman notes, the Wildcats under former player and Wichita Falls native Joe Golding win games by forcing turnovers on defense (allowing the seventh-fewest points in the nation at 60.5 per game) and moving the ball on offense. And while they’re led by seven-foot-tall San Angelo native Kolton Kohl, they are the shortest team in the tournament, with an average height of 75.1 inches and led by guards Damien Daniels, who is 5’7″, and the Houston-bred Reggie Miller, who is generously listed at six feet and 150 pounds.
— Abilene Christian Basketball (@ACU_MBB) March 14, 2021
ACU is the kind of team opposing coaches worry about—they won twelve of their last thirteen games, obliterated regular-season champion Nicholls State in the Southland tournament, and might have made the Dance for three straight years if not for last year’s cancellation. They also don’t have to worry about an overly burnt-orange crowd in Indiana. According to Washington Post sports analytics writer Neil Greenberg, the Wildcats have a 21 percent chance of pulling the upset, which is 2.7 times higher than the average fourteen seed. The Athletic puts it even higher, at 34 percent. Five Thirty Eight, on the other hand, gives the Wildcats a 15 percent chance, “which is exactly the norm for a 14-seed.”
No. 13 seed, South Region
First-round opponent: No. 4 Purdue
How far can they go: It will be a short visit to Indiana.
The Post’s Greenberg is also bullish on North Texas, giving the Mean Green a 22 percent chance of upsetting Purdue. If so, they just might face a twelve seed in the second round, as several experts have also pegged Winthrop to knock off Villanova, which is missing its best player in injured guard Collin Gillespie.
But having cast my lot with ACU, I don’t quite have the moxie to pick two teenage seeds from Texas to advance (maybe in an alt pool). Coach Grant McCasland’s North Texas squad needed overtime to beat Western Kentucky 61–57 in the Conference USA championship game. As that score suggests, they can be a defensive nightmare. But you could say the same about the Boilermakers, and Purdue coach Matt Painter rarely loses first-round games (just twice in eleven tournament appearances, the last of those five years ago). Beating a deep, Big 10-tested Purdue team on an Indiana court is probably too much to ask of the boys from Denton.
No. 6 seed, Men’s South Region
First-round opponent: No. 11 Utah State
How far can they go: second-round loss
If you’re reading this on Friday afternoon, Tech’s season could already be over. It won’t be, though. Since head coach Chris Beard took over in 2016, the Red Raiders have gone from a team that knocks off favorites to a team that underdogs look to knock off. But after making the Elite Eight in 2018, Beard handled the pressure to repeat that success just fine in 2019, making the Final Four and beating Michigan State before losing to Virginia in a classic overtime championship game.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 14, 2021
Led by guard Mac “McDagger” McClung, who came to Lubbock via Georgetown (the university, not the Austin exurb), the Raiders won’t sleep on 20–8 Utah State. After all, you gotta take your wins against a team named the “Aggies” anyway you can. As a former Tech assistant under both Bob Knight and Pat Knight, Beard is also looking forward to playing in Bloomington’s Assembly Hall.
The Red Raiders have a mixed résumé against fellow tournament teams this season. They lost to Houston but beat Abilene Christian. They beat Oklahoma and Texas twice but lost to Baylor, West Virginia, and Kansas twice. Then they lost to Texas in the Big 12 tournament. Is an Elite Eight match-up between Tech and number one seed Baylor too much to ask? Probably, as TTU would likely have to beat both number three Arkansas and number two Ohio State to get there. But at least one pundit—Zach Braziller of the New York Post—has the Raiders in the Final Four, and without even facing Baylor, as Braziller expects the Bears to flame out early.
No. 3 seed, East Region
First-round opponent, No. 14 Abilene Christian
How far can they go: first-round loss
Do I really think that Shaka Smart’s best Longhorns team will lose to ACU? Probably not.
But if you’re a cynic—and who can follow University of Texas athletics without being a cynic?—it’s hard to get past history. In 2016, Smart was a no-brainer hire out of Virginia Commonwealth, having made the tournament five times in six years, including one Final Four appearance and two Sweet 16s. But his Horns have only made the Big Dance three times in six seasons (including this year), and they’ve yet to win a game. (They did, however, win the 2019 NIT, for whatever that’s worth.)
Before the pandemic canceled last year’s tourney, some wondered if Smart was coaching for his job, and given that this is Texas, who’s to say that isn’t still the case? The team’s chances in March Madness 2021 depend on which Longhorns team shows up. Will it be the team that started 10–1, beat North Carolina, Kansas, and West Virginia, and got ranked as high as number four in the country on January 4? Will it be the team that endured a 4–6 stretch from mid-January till the end of February, including losses to Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia? Or will it be the one we’re watching now, which is 6–1 in its last seven games and coming off a Big 12 conference title?
It’s equally easy to find experts who think the Horns will go out early as it is to find ones—like Cedric Golden of the hometown Austin American-Statesman—who believe UT will make the Final Four. With big man Jericho Sims, former Texas Mr. Basketball Greg Brown, and point guard Matt Coleman, there’s no doubt they have Final Four talent.
No. 2 seed, Midwest Region
First-round opponent, No. 15 Cleveland State
How far can they go?: Final Four
All seems right in the world when the school best known for Phi Slama Jama is back in the NCAA mix. It was even fun during the Tom Penders era. Seventh-year Houston coach Kelvin Sampson found his way to UH after his ill-fated stint at Indiana and six years as an NBA assistant, three of them under Kevin McHale with the Rockets. Since the 2017–2018 season, it’s been paying off. The Cougars made it to the Sweet 16 in 2019, and finished the current season ranked fifth in the AP poll. This despite all fifteen Houston players testing positive for COVID-19 back in December.
There’s no doubt the Cougars will handle Cleveland State, which, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistical analysis, is the luckiest team in the field. This means that Houston’s opponent has won more games—particularly close games—than their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers suggest they deserved to. It also means their luck is due to run out.
As Richard Justice wrote here in January, Sampson and UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta have championship expectations—and basketball is certainly going better than football. The 24–3 Cougars play great defense, giving up the second-fewest points per game (58) in Division I. They get 40.8 percent three-point shooting from guard Quentin Grimes, a high school star from the Woodlands who came home after first attending Kansas. Rebounding comes from Justin Gorham, and additional scoring from Marcus Sasser, who played high school ball at Red Oak for his uncle, Texas Tech legend Jason Sasser.
So what the heck—let’s take a flier. If the Cougars can avoid a second-round shocker and survive the Sweet 16, they can also make the Final Four by knocking off Illinois, a number one seed that might be ripe for its own upset loss. One tourney simulation, by Bart Torvik, actually has Houston as the second-most-likely team to win it all, well behind Gonzaga, but ahead of the team Houston would have to face in the Final Four. Which is …
No. 1 seed, South Region
First-round opponent: No. 16 Hartford
How far can they go? Greg Abbott says it’s safe to have a championship parade.
You can find Richard Justice’s complete rundown on the Bears here. As he noted, Baylor’s current great season is more or less a continuation of last year’s great season, except now they get to play the tournament.
Who might stop them? Certainly not Hartford. Although the Hawks are a great story—it’s their first NCAA tournament appearance, 36 years after joining Division I—they already needed a pair of Cinderella slippers plus a jar of pixie dust to complete an improbable championship run through the America East Conference tournament. For Hartford, the music stops with Baylor.
The Bears will face stiffer opposition as they advance through a South Region that also includes North Carolina, Wisconsin, Purdue, Arkansas, and Ohio State. One of the latter two is expected to emerge from the bottom half of the bracket to play Baylor for a Final Four berth—unless number six Texas Tech can make it through, which would mean the Bears and Raiders clashing in the Elite Eight. Imagine the tweets!
But all anybody really wants to talk about is Baylor and Gonzaga—the potential final matchup. Baptists versus Jesuits. Scott Drew or Mark Few? Spokane versus Waco. In recent years, both schools have achieved number one rankings in the national polls and made deep tournament runs without finishing the job. Gonzaga made its first Final Four in 2017, losing the national championship to North Carolina. Baylor hasn’t been to a Final Four since the NCAA Tournament expanded to a 64-team field. The Zags also happen to be Baylor’s most recent March Madness opponent. Gonzaga defeated the Bears in the second round of the 2019 tourney before falling to Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. The two teams were actually supposed to play this past December, but—surprise!—that game had to be canceled as a result of COVID-19 health protocols.
Gonzaga is undefeated (26–0), the top-ranked team in the nation, and the clear betting favorite to win the tournament. Baylor is 22–2, third in the AP poll, and 5-to-1 in Vegas. The x factor is conference strength, with the Big 12 presumably tougher than Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference (and then some). Baylor is 7–2 against top 25 teams, with all but one of those games in-conference (they also beat Illinois in December).
But Gonzaga is 4–0 against ranked opponents, with wins over Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia—the three schools that happen to be the two, three, and four seeds in their region. They also went 2–0 against fellow WCC team BYU, which wasn’t in the top 25 at the time, but is now, and which enters the tournament as a six seed. The Zags are the mid-major school with high-major talent, and they’ve been part of March Madness every single one of the twenty years that Few has coached them.
Did I just talk myself out of Baylor winning this thing? Don’t @ me.