By the time the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament selection was over on Sunday, seven schools from Texas had secured a spot in the field of 68. This was a record-tying feat: according to the Austin American-Statesman, only twice before has a single state had as many teams make the tournament—California in 2002, and Texas in 2010. Sure, some of this year’s crop are good bets to be bounced in the early rounds (sorry, Texas Southern), but the Lone Star delegation includes more than a few intriguing teams that could make deep runs—possibly even reaching the Final Four, which is being held in San Antonio.
Texas Tech is one of those legitimate contenders for the big show. The Red Raiders had one of the best seasons in program history, finishing 24-9 with impressive wins over Kansas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma. They climbed as high as number six in the Associated Press Top 25 poll before finishing the regular season at fourteen, which was enough to make them a three-seed in the East region. But Tech’s balanced roster, led by senior Keenan Evans (17.5 points per game), has been pretty beat up this year; Evans struggled through a turf toe injury, and fellow senior starter Zach Smith missed time with a broken foot. Although Tech limped through a four-game losing streak in February, everyone seems to be healthy heading into the tournament. With one of the best defenses in the country, allowing just 64.7 points per game, there’s a good chance that a fancy new banner will go up in Lubbock next year.
Tech’s first-round test is against fellow Texas team Stephen F. Austin, who won the Southland Tournament for an automatic bid. It won’t be an easy matchup for the Red Raiders. The Lumberjacks won an impressive 28 games this year, with a win over power-conference foe LSU and a one-point loss to tournament team Missouri. This is their fourth tournament appearance in the past five years, so don’t expect any stage fright. Stephen F. Austin loves to press opposing offenses, leading the nation in steals per game. So if they can make Tech uncomfortable and force turnovers all game long, it could give the Lumberjacks enough juice for a major upset.
In the West region, the University of Houston is seeded sixth, the result of an impressive finish to the season that saw the Cougars knock off number eleven Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference Tournament before losing by one point to eighth-ranked Cincinnati in the finals. UH finished 26-6 overall, the program’s best season since legendary coach Guy Lewis was prowling the sidelines (this is just the Cougars’s fifth NCAA Tournament appearance since Lewis retired in 1986). Current head coach Kelvin Sampson has steadily improved the program’s status since he took over in 2014, with help this year from Rob Gray, Houston’s man-bunned leading scorer (18.5 points per game). Gray dropped 33 points on Wichita State in the AAC semifinals, and he could light up teams in the West region too. He and the Cougars will first have to get past Mountain West Conference champions San Diego State, but there’s a path for Houston to bust some brackets after that, with potential games against Michigan, North Carolina, and Xavier.
Joining the Cougars in the West Region is seventh-seeded Texas A&M. The Aggies have one of the strongest frontcourts in the tournament, led by six-foot-ten senior Tyler Davis (14.5 points per game, 8.8 rebounds) and potential NBA lottery pick Robert Williams (10.3 points and nine rebounds per game as a sophomore). Those two have helped A&M become the fifth-best rebounding team in the country. The Aggies got off to a hot start this season, winning eleven of their first twelve games and peaking at number five in the AP poll, with big wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and then-number one USC. But the Aggies have been plagued by inconsistency since then, losing five straight games at the start of SEC play before beating Kentucky and Auburn to solidify a tournament bid. A&M will have its hands full in the first round against Providence, which won the Big East tournament and has beaten number-one seeds Villanova and Xavier during the regular season.
TCU might be one of the most interesting teams in the entire tournament. This will be the Horned Frogs’ first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998, and just the eighth appearance in program history. And yet, thanks to last year’s surprising National Invitational Tournament championship run, this team has proved it has postseason chops. They’re also led by head coach Jamie Dixon, who guided Pittsburgh to eleven tournament appearances, including two Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight, before joining TCU in 2016. The Horned Frogs debuted with an eleven-game winning streak to start the season, with wins over tournament teams Nevada and St. Bonaventure before hitting the Big 12 chainsaw. They’ve gone a mediocre 9-11 since calendars changed to 2018, and lost star guard Jaylen Fisher to a season-ending injury in mid-January. But with five players averaging double-digit scoring (and Allen Robinson falling just short, with an average of 9.8 points per game), TCU is built better than most teams to withstand the loss of Fisher. The team shares the ball extremely well (18.8 assists per game, second in the nation) and shoots well from beyond the arc (40 percent three-point field goal percentage overall). TCU has a pretty tough path forward in the Midwest region, though, playing the winner of the play-in game between Arizona State and Syracuse in the first round before a potential second-round matchup against Michigan State.
Few programs in the country have had as turbulent a season as the University of Texas. The Longhorns have been on the periphery of the AP Top 25 all season, with close losses against Kansas, Gonzaga, Michigan, and Duke, paired with big wins over Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma, TCU, and Alabama. They were the worst offensive team in the Big 12, averaging just 71.7 points per game this season, and the Longhorns’ longest win streak was a meager four games at the start of the season. They don’t have a single senior in the rotation, and superstar freshman Mo Bamba, a skillful seven-footer who is the second-leading shot blocker in the country (3.7 per game), has played just 29 minutes total in the final five games of the season thanks to a toe injury. UT has also been without guard Eric Davis Jr., who hasn’t played since he was named in documents obtained during the FBI’s massive college basketball corruption investigation in late February (Davis Jr. allegedly received $1,500 from a professional agent, which could be a violation of NCAA rules, and he has been held out of competition as the university investigates). On top of all that, UT has played most of the season without scoring guard Andrew Jones (13.5 points through ten games this season), who was diagnosed with leukemia in January. None of this bodes well for the Longhorns heading into tournament play, but it also means they’re as battle-tested as any team in the bracket. If Bamba is healthy and the players can rally around Jones as he progresses through treatment, then the Longhorns could have a shot.
Then there’s Texas Southern. What to say about the sixteen seed, the only team in the field of 68 with a losing record (15-19)? Well, they won the SWAC Tournament, and this is actually their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in the past seven years. Not too shabby. Plus they have a five-foot-seven guard, Trae Jefferson, who averages 23.4 points per game and whose jaw-dropping high school highlight reels have made the rounds on YouTube. Texas Southern has a great chance to actually win a game in the tournament, too, thanks to a play-in round matchup against fellow sixteen seed North Carolina Central. Will they win again after that? No. A sixteen seed has never beaten a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Xavier isn’t likely to be the team to end that streak. But there’s no reason to think that far ahead, anyway. Just sit back and watch Jefferson work.