This young Texas team was never going to contend for a trip to New Orleans, but with last year's NBA lockout and the effect it had on so many elite college players' decisions to return for another year of college ball -- combined with the Big 12's most welcomed move to a 10-team Round Robin conference schedule -- the 2011-12 season has been one of the most intriguing seasons in a while. As the Regional rounds of the NCAA Tournament draw to a close, a few observations on the college hoops season prior to next weekend's Final Four.
Snakebit in Austin. As nice as it was in other ways to see a swarm of college players return for this season, it's hard as a Texas fan not to roll one's eyes at how the ripple effect managed to hurt the Longhorns. In a normal year of attrition, Tristan Thompson is a Top 15-20 player, and though perhaps we lose him anyway, once the NBA Draft board opened up and he was set to be a Top 5 pick, there was no way he could return. And even more so with Corey Joseph, a normal year of attrition means the combo guard has no prayer at a first round selection and that decision becomes a whole lot more of a gamble, rather than prudent.
It's particularly painful when you think about what this year's Texas team would have been like with those two players on the roster. Hell, if Texas doesn't meltdown in the first 15 minutes against Cincinnati, I didn't see much from Florida State that suggested we couldn't have gotten to the East Regional semifinals against Ohio State without them. With Joseph and Thompson -- neither of whom appeared to be one-and-done players when they were recruited -- Texas is an Elite Eight contender, and maybe more if we happened to draw as friendly a bracket as, say, Kansas.
Speaking of which... While we're on the topic of Texas, the Tournament, and WHAT IT ALL MEANS ABOUT RICK BARNES, Scipio Tex has a must-read piece over at Barking Carnival that neatly frames the false dichotomy that's consumed the Texas basketball narrative among a segment of the fan base. It's a nice prelude to the post series that Reggieball and I are going to publish in April, which tackles the central question of whether it makes sense to see if Rick Barnes can take Texas to more Final Fours, or if it would be worth the gamble to hire some other attractive candidate. I say Scipio Tex's post is a nice prelude to our forthcoming post series because an important part of our thesis is that the broader context is critical not only to the answer, but to how the question should be asked.
The Road to the Final Four. I imagine someone owns the trademark to that phrase by now, but this weekend certainly provided a nice reminder that all those roads are not created equal. For the second time in three years, Baylor advanced to a Regional final whipping by playing a trio of double-digit seeds. In 2010 the Bears got there with wins over (14) Sam Houston State, (11) Old Dominion, and (10) St. Mary's, and did it again this year with victories over (14) South Dakota State, (11) Colorado, and (10) Xavier.
Kansas, too, had the Tournament stars shine down upon them this year, advancing to the Elite Eight with wins over (15) Detroit, (10) Purdue, and (11) NC State, only to draw a North Carolina team without Kendall Marshall. And not only were were the Jayhawks fortunate just to survive Purdue and NC State, the Committee placed them in... St. Louis, effectively giving them two home games in the Regional semis and finals. With that said, Kansas' extraordinarily fortunate path to New Orleans also serves to highlight the importance of the great job Bill Self did with his team in the regular season. Without that regular season Big 12 title, there's no way the Jayhawks get that St. Louis slot.
It'd be nice if Texas could catch a break like that. We got hosed last year in a ridiculous No. 4 seed placement, only to lose on a blown call, to a team that would take our Elite Eight spot. And even in 2008, when Texas got the friendly placement in Houston, instead of drawing a Kendall Marshall-less Carolina, we drew... a fully healthy and loaded Memphis. Seriously, this program is cursed.
How good is Kentucky? I hope everyone made as much money as I did this weekend betting on Kentucky (and the over), because this team is absolutely rolling like... well, they're starting to look like that 1990 UNLV team. Indiana played really, really good basketball on Friday night, and Kentucky just amped it up into another gear and one-upped them. Baylor just got whipped. And unlike that Memphis team that couldn't close out Calipari's first NCAA title, this team can hit free throws. I'm excited to see them play in-state rival Louisville and, hopefully, Ohio State, but if this group fails to win its next two, the best team in the country won't have won the national title.
About Rick Pitino. Four decades, and four Final Fours. 11-0 in the Sweet 16. The man can coach, and I'm really excited to see what he comes up with for this battle with Kentucky. His team is badly out-manned, but he's got an important factor on his side: pressure. This young Kentucky team knows what a regular season game against Louisville means to fans in the Bluegrass state. But this... this will be off the charts. The pressure on Kentucky to win this game will be absolutely unlike anything Texas fans have ever experienced. It would be like Texas and OU meeting in the Rose Bowl for the national title. Actually, not quite, because Oklahoma's fans would expect to win every bit as much. It would be more like Texas facing Texas A&M in the Rose Bowl for the national title. Could you forgive Texas for losing that game?
Both teams will be under enormous pressure, but it's different with Kentucky. Especially this team, which every fan in the state has tagged for banner number eight. I'm sure Pitino will try to exploit that pressure to his advantage, and it will be interesting to see if this insanely talented Kentucky team can keep up the level of play they showed in the Regional rounds. If they do... Louisville has no chance.
Although the 2012 NCAA Tournament hasn't been especially dramatic, it's been interesting, and I'm as invested in the Final Four as I've been in years. Should be fun...