Let's set aside the hand wringing about the Longhorns being in this position heading into the regular season's final game. The offseason offers all too much time for recriminations, and if Texas fails to make the NCAA Tournament this season, the UT fan base will be clamoring loudly... about spring football. But in between spring game snaps you'll hear grumbling about an underachieving basketball program.
For the several dozen of us who live and die with these basketball teams, though, all of that must wait. At this point, it's irrelevant that we hoped to be spending the first week of March obsessing over Texas' chances of getting a protected seed. Right now, Texas is on the NCAA Tournament bubble: their performance over the next 2 to 5 games will determine their fate: in or out.
I hear you, Grouchy Football Fan: Who cares? The best they can do is squeak in as a double digit seed, or if they're unlucky enough, play their way to a No. 8 or No. 9 seed and second round date with a juggernaut.
And you're right: that's the best they can do at this point. But I care. The other 50 Longhorns hoops junkies care. Eleventh seeded George Mason cared in 2006, as did VCU in 2011 when they became the first to advance from playing in the "First Four" play-in games all the way to the Final Four. You know who else cared? Eighth seeded Villanova, when they cut down the nets in 1985, and ditto eighth seeded Butler in 2012, when Gordon Hayward's final heave came within inches of toppling Duke for the title.
With the NCAA Tournament, it's simple: if you're in it, you can win it. And seeding matters much less than your particular draw. Take Wichita State's recent Tournament experience. As the No. 9 seed in 2013, the Shockers won the South Regional with victories over an average Pitt squad, the weakest No. 1 seed (Gonzaga), No. 14 seed LaSalle, and an underachieving Ohio State team. A year later, the Shockers earned a No. 1 seed and were rewarded with the most loaded regional the NCAA Tournament has ever seen, which included as its No. 8 seed Kentucky, the national runners up.
So yeah, I care whether Texas gets in. Whether you're a No. 12 seed looking to catch lightning in a bottle or a No. 1 seed hoping to survive your regional challengers, the bottom line remains the same: if you're in it, you can win it.
So... Are We In?
If Selection Sunday was today, Texas would likely be one of the last four in or first four out. Turning to the essential Bracket Matrix, which compiles the projected seeding from just about every bracketologist on the interwebs, the Longhorns composite seed across all the projected brackets places them as the first team out of the field, just behind Purdue, Davidson, BYU and Temple, the last four at-large teams in the field. That meshes with the field projected by college basketball's most visible bracketologist, ESPN's Joe Lunardi, who has Texas atop his First Four Out list.
In other words, Texas is literally right on the edge of the bubble. Needless to say, Saturday's regular season finale at home against Kansas State is a must win. A loss sends Texas into the pool of teams that must win their conference tournament to receive a bid.
A win solidifies Texas' position on the edge of the field, or just outside it. The winner of Saturday's game also gets the No. 7 seed in the Big 12 Tournament, with an opening round match up against Texas Tech, followed by a date with the No. 2 seed -- Iowa State or OU. Both the Cyclones and Sooners swept the Horns in the regular season, but ISU and OU are also not Kansas. Playing Kansas in Kansas City with your NCAA Tournament life at stake is... suboptimal. If we're lucky, we'll beat K-State on Saturday and get a second round date with OU.
Who to root for, Part 1: In my estimation, we're better off playing the Sooners in the Big 12 Tournament than Iowa State, and to the extent you agree, along with a Texas victory we're rooting for OU to knock out Kansas in the season finale in Norman and either an Iowa State loss to TCU or a Baylor win. It gets a little confusing, but WRNL has a terrific primer on all the Big 12 Tournament seeding possibilities.
If Texas were in fact to knock off K-State, Tech, and OU or ISU in succession, it would likely hear its name called on Selection Sunday, even with a loss in the Big 12 semifinals, although it would still be a close call. I'd feel a lot better with one more win to make the Big 12 finals. The nice thing about the brutally competitive Big 12 is that after Tech and TCU, no matter who you beat it's going to register as a quality win on your resume.
Who to root for, Part 2: So let's imagine Texas beats K-State and Tech, and then loses in either the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals or semifinals, leaving us on the Bubble come Selection Sunday. Who/what are we rooting for around the country? Above all else, we are rooting for order. We want the most orderly Championship Week in the history of college basketball, with every favored conference champion cruising easily to the conference's auto-bid. Chalk, chalk, and more chalk. With each appearance from Cinderella during Championship Week, the at-large field shrinks by one. With Texas on the Bubble, this is the time to channel your inner Andrew Wiggins and root-root-root for the favorites. Buy a Duke jersey, cheer for Kentucky to win the SEC, and load up your betting ticket with favorites, because when you're right on the edge of the Bubble, every last spot counts.
Beyond that, keep an eye on our competitors for the final few spots and send nasty vibes their way. Right now, that group includes the aforementioned Last Four In (Purdue, Davidson, Temple, BYU), as well as Tulsa, Illinois, UCLA, Stanford, and Miami. May they all play terrible basketball this weekend.
And may we play great basketball on Saturday. Because none of the rest of this stuff matters a lick if we fail to take care of the Wildcats on our home floor.
We survived Baylor in overtime to live another day. Elimination Game #2 is tomorrow at 3:00 pm. Be there or tune in. Spring football can wait.