Does being “battle tested” matter?
That’s something coaches love to talk about – especially those in the nation’s power conferences. If playing a tough conference schedule really mattered, though, would it be Gonzaga that currently is riding a national-best streak of seven consecutive Sweet 16 appearances? Would the Zags have made it to the NCAA Championship game twice in the past five tournaments?
Houston’s non-conference schedule included only three significant tests: Alabama, Virginia and Saint Mary’s, all designated top-five seeds. The American Athletic Conference produced only one other NCAA Tournament team, Memphis, whom the Cougars played three times.
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There were three games against eventual mid-major conference champions, including Oral Roberts and Kent State, two of the more dangerous double-digit seeds in the field.
There was a lot of room for Houston to breathe in the games that remained. We will see if they needed to play more games that were competitive to be best prepared for what they’re about to encounter in March Madness.
G – Marcus Sasser, Houston
G – Souley Boum, Xavier
PF – Trayce Jackson-Davis
PG – Jalen Pickett, Penn State
PF – Kris Murray, Iowa
Best first-round game
No. 4 Indiana vs. No. 13 Kent State
If you watched Toledo fruitlessly attempt to contain the Golden Flashes in Saturday night’s MAC championship game, you recognized that whomever was unfortunate enough to draw Kent State better be prepared to score points. Lots of them.
This could become a real problem for IU, which has endured at least one significant scoring drought in each of its most recent games and could pay for it if the Hoosiers struggle to be effective against Kent and star point guard Sincere Carry.
Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis will be trying to advance beyond the first round of the tournament for the first time, and he wants it badly. And when he’s playing for something he wants, he can be among the most entertaining players in college basketball.
EXPERT PICKS: DeCourcy (Alabama) | Bender (Kansas) | Fagan (Marquette) | Pohnl (Kansas)
Seeded too high
No. 1 Houston
No doubt the Cougars deserved a No. 1 regional seed, but they were designated as the selection committee’s No. 2 overall team despite having played in a meager American Athletic Conference that produced only one other NCAA Tournament team and having won only four of its six games against NCAA Tournament teams.
This was a significant decision, because it meant No. 3 overall Kansas had to be shipped out of a region to which it could have traveled by bus – heck, it almost could have walked to Kansas City to play games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight if it earned them.
KU played 22 games against opponents that are in the NCAA Tournament field. The committee picked more than half of these teams; they must think they’re good. KU won 15 of those games, a .672 percentage.
Houston played nine games against the field and won seven, a .778 percentage.
However, three of Houston’s victories were against double-digit seeds that earned automatic bids. Against what bracket analysts call the “at-large field” – teams that would be in with or without automatic bids – Houston was only 4-2.
Talk about a small sample size.
There’s no way that warranted preference over a team with KU’s accomplishments. The Jayhawks won eight games against teams seeded on the committee’s top six lines. That’s more than Houston won against any tournament teams.
MORE: Print your 2023 March Madness bracket here
Seeded too low
No. 7 Texas A&M
Maybe it’s the vests? Maybe the selection committee just isn’t into the whole 3-piece suit deal that head coach Buzz Williams favors for his sideline attire. Because this is the second consecutive year the Aggies got a rough deal.
Last year’s was far worse; they were left out of the field even though 95 percent of projected brackets had them in the field. This time, they were a consensus No. 5 seed but somehow wound up here, with a possible second-round game that would reignite a rivalry so famous it made it into the text of the musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Most bracket storylines happen organically, but with A&M so far off where they should be, this feels somewhat contrived.
Texas A&M was 7-6 against Quad 1; the records of the four teams designated by the committee as No. 5 seeds were 5-6, 5-5, 5-5 and 2-3. The Aggies’ predictive metrics averaged out to a No. 4 seed and their results metrics also to a No. 4.
Indeed, this program has made a habit of doing its best work late in the season and dropping some inexplicable losses along the way. But the games all should count, including those played the day before Selection Sunday.
No. 12 Drake over No. 5 Miami
The Bulldogs are a terrific defensive team that excels in the area of controlling opponents on the perimeter, and that is an essential component of the Hurricanes’ attack. The question is whether Drake’s exceptional D can contain a Miami team with such extraordinary ability to attack off the dribble.
Drake destroyed each of its three Missouri Valley tournament opponents by double digits, including 26-point blowout of league regular-season champion Bradley in the “Arch Madness” final in St. Louis.
Miami big man Norchad Omier injured his ankle in the Canes’ blowout loss to Duke in the ACC semifinals, so he’ll have less than a week to heal. It’s uncertain whether that will limit – or remove him – as part of the rotation.
HISTORY OF UPSETS BY SEED:
15 vs. 2 | 14 vs. 3 | 13 vs. 4 | 12 vs. 5
Best potential game
No. 3 Xavier vs. No. 2 Texas
The Longhorns play few boring games in the NCAA Tournament. A year ago, their second-round game against Purdue was a 3-point game with 90 seconds left, after guard Marcus Carr nailed a 3-pointer, before the Boilers made enough free throws to make it appear like things had been manageable.
In 2021, it was the excruciating one-point loss to Abilene Christian in the first round. In 2018, it was an overtime loss to Nevada.
So it seems we’re saying Texas loses a lot of close NCAA games. But that’s not really the point. It’s just to tell you the game is likely to be entertaining, especially with Xavier’s dynamic offense matched against the group that just hung 76 on Big 12 regular-season champion Kansas.
Xavier has the nation’s No. 9 offense. Texas is No. 18.
Who doesn’t want some of that?
Best potential player matchup
Jalen Pickett, Penn State v. Wade Taylor IV, Texas A&M
Potential? Heck with that. Let’s just get right to it. These two guards will meet in the first round, and they could not be more different. In fact, one of Williams’ most important duties in this game could be making sure Taylor isn’t the one charged with defending Pickett as he backs himself down into the mid-post.
Pickett is a genuinely unique player, at his best when he’s got his back to the goal and scans the perimeter for options among the team’s many capable 3-point shooters. Taylor is increasingly dynamic on offense and has scored 20 or more points seven times in the past 10 games.
Get to know
Texas A&M sophomore guard Wade Taylor IV
Taylor became a unanimous All-SEC selection just two years after leaving high school as the nation’s No. 119 player, which says something about his overwhelming confidence as a player.
He was a star at Lancaster High in Dallas and scored more than 2,000 points in high school. His 6-0 size might have been an impediment to a more accurate prospect ranking, but it has not prevented him from excelling as a collegian.
It also has not prevented him from talking a heck of a game. When the Aggies earned a spot in the SEC Tournament title game for a second straight season, Taylor declared it was, “Just another chance to make history” and indicated A&M would go out Sunday afternoon “and win another game”.
It didn’t work out that way, but what do you want to bet he’s fully intending on conquering the Midwest Region?
Don’t be surprised if …
Houston has a devil of a time escaping its second round game.
No one knows whether the second-round opponent will be Iowa or Auburn, but the Hawkeyes have the nation’s No. 3 offense, and Auburn has tournament savant Bruce Pearl on the bench. And we don’t know if the Cougars will have full access to Sasser by then.
Houston looked lost against Memphis without him. That’s the best word for it. They still have plenty of talent, but the confidence that carried them through the few tough moments they’ve faced this season appeared to be replaced by a sense of unease.
It’s quite obvious they need him in order to be great. But do they need him merely to reach the “very good” level they’d need to attain to win a second round game?
No. 13 Kent State
The Mid-American Conference had three terrific teams this season: Kent, Toledo, Akron, and it seemed likely one of them would end up here. The Golden Flashes had to go through both of the others in the MAC tournament to reach the NCAAs, and they were sensational at the tournament played in Cleveland.
In the final, they scored 58 points in the second half of a game that had only a one-point margin at halftime. They shot 10-of-24 from 3-point range and 55.7 percent overall.
The 13-over-4 upset is not as common as the almost-cliche 12-over-5, but Indiana will discover the necessity to be extremely serious about coping with the challenges the Flashes present.
Final Four pick
In a region where the best team is dealing with a major injury, the third-best team struggles on defense, the fourth-best team is inconsistent within games and the fifth-best team will have a tough time escaping the first round, the process of elimination brings us to Texas.
Winning the Big 12 Tournament was like winning a mini-NCAAs. The Longhorns had to defeat a No. 1 seed, a No. 6 seed and a team that just missed the field in the space of three days. They’ve done that before and then flopped in March Madness. And they’ve got a tough road: possibly A&M, Xavier and Houston. That’s no fun at all.
It will be for us, though.
And for the Horns, if they return to the Final Four for the first time in – geez, T.J. Ford, was it that long ago? – 20 years, it will be very fun.