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This Texas-heavy region looks set to be the site of a bloodbath. The Midwest Regional’s two top-seeded teams, Houston and Texas, could be on a crash course to meet in the Elite Eight in what would be a preview of their soon-to-come Big 12 clashes. That is if the rest of the region lets them get away with it. We could be looking at a Texas-Texas A&M showdown in the second round, plus offensive juggernaut Xavier and Trayce Jackson-Davis’s Indiana are waiting in the wings. Nothing is guaranteed, except that one of these 16 will dance into the Final Four.
Odds-On Favorite: 1 Houston (+120)
Other Favorites: 2 Texas (+400), 3 Xavier (+950)
The Challengers: 7 Texas A&M (+1100), 4 Indiana (+1200), 5 Miami (+1600), 6 Iowa State (+2000)
The Case for the Favorites
Before losing to Memphis in the AAC Tournament Final, Houston was riding a 13-game winning streak and is one of four teams in the nation to have already notched 30 wins. That’s no fluke. The Cougars have been to two-straight Elite Eights and reached the Final Four two seasons ago. Returning to those heights is a realistic goal.
Houston is one of the least turnover-prone teams in the country, has a wealth of experience on its roster – five members of its rotation were on the 2021 Final Four team – and KenPom has the Cougars as the top team in his adjusted efficiency metric. This squad has allowed opponents to break 70 only four times in its entire campaign and holds opponents to the second-worst field-goal percentage in the country (36.5 percent). Scoring on Houston is quite a tall task, and this team’s athleticism and depth make it difficult to handle on the offensive end, too.
Disclaimer: it is important to monitor the status of Marcus Sasser, who did not play against Memphis in the conference tournament final defeat. He strained his groin in the semifinals of the event on Saturday. As of Monday morning, the team had not announced when he will return. Houston is a very different team without the senior guard.
The Longhorns are riding high after stamping true their second-ever Big 12 Tournament title via a 76-56 rout of Kansas in the championship game, and the second time in four contests that Texas pummeled the pace-setter from the Big 12’s regular season. This team appears as ready as any to make a run at the Final Four and maybe even more.
Marcus Carr is the straw that stirs the drink in Austin. The All-Big 12 First Teamer does more than just score, though he does plenty of that, too. Carr has the ball in his hands nearly every possession but barely turns it over, and he’s a major contributor defensively, ranking in the top 10 of the Big 12 in steals per contest.
But Carr is only one of the many problems Texas presents. The Longhorns go 10 deep, and one of their best players doesn’t even start. Sir’Jabari Rice is this team’s second-leading scorer, but he’s been mostly utilized as the first man off the bench this season. The Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year is a testament to how many quality hoopers Texas has at its disposal, making it less susceptible to foul trouble, fatigue, and one or two players having an off night.
Xavier is home to a top-10 most-efficient offense in the nation, according to KenPom, and at 81.4 points per game, it makes sense. The Musketeers have four active players scoring in double-figures and lead Division I in assists per contest (19.9). Even if you cut off one head, there are another few ready to rip you to shreds. It’s important to note that Zach Freemantle won’t be coming back this season, but the Musketeers have proven that the way they play means they can plug holes easier than most – Xavier has gone 7-4 since losing Freemantle, including two victories over Providence and an 82-60 demolishing of Creighton in the Big East Tournament Semifinals.
The Musketeers are also one of the nation’s most-elite shooting teams. With a collective field-goal percentage of 49.4 and a three-point connection clip of 39.5, opposing defenses have their hands full trying to close out shooters while maintaining integrity in the lane. When you have four players who hit triples at rates of 38 percent or better, teams will struggle to guard you.
What Xavier excels at on the offensive end, it can lack on the other side. The Musketeers give up an obscene number of shots to their opponents, and they rank very lowly in many important defensive statistical categories. But if Xavier can get it going offensively and push the tempo high enough, the volume its opposition gets on the other end doesn’t matter that much – in a shooting contest, the Musketeers are likely to win.
Dark Horse to Monitor: 6 Iowa State
This is one of the most difficult teams in the country to score against. Iowa State smothered its opponents, barely allowing them to get shots up and hardly fouling to give any easy opportunities for points. Every bucket against the Cyclones is tough to come by, and defense is usually something that reliably travels in college basketball.
It was a tough last few weeks of the regular season for Iowa State – before besting Baylor in back-to-back games in the regular season finale and Big 12 Tournament opener, the Cyclones had dropped eight of their last 10 and dealt with some drama, kicking Caleb Grill off the team in early March. But the victories over the Bears indicate that this team has life left, and considering the attrition offered in the Big 12 this season, the losing streak isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm.
The Cyclones will have to score better to truly make a run at this thing, and that’s a big if, but you won’t find many squads in the nation that defend at a higher level. Iowa State won’t be able to ride its defense all the way to the Final Four, but if the Cyclones do go deep, their score-stopping will be the impetus.
Cinderella Candidate: 10 Penn State
The hottest teams are the scariest ones to face in March, and Penn State is scorching right now.
The Nittany Lions were considered outside of the field just a couple of weeks ago, but a five-game winning streak that began on the first day of March propelled them comfortably into the Dance. Those five wins weren’t over bottom feeders, either – Penn State won at Northwestern, in Happy Valley against Maryland, and in the Big Ten Tournament versus Illinois, Northwestern again, and Indiana. The Nittany Lions have lost just twice in their last 10 games.
The production Penn State is getting out of Jalen Pickett lately is insane, and this is one of the premier three-point shooting teams in the nation at 38.5 percent, which makes comebacks and scoring runs more likely. PSU is not great on the defensive end, but it does effectively rebound on that side of the floor, allowing this team to play more offense and less defense.
If head coach Micah Shrewsberry can get favorable matchups for Pickett’s 6-foot-4, 202-pound frame, draw up plays to get catch-and-shoot threes for Andrew Funk, and otherwise muck up the game to keep it low-possession and slow, then Penn State can hang with just about anybody in the country.
Elite Eight Prediction: 1 Houston vs 2 Texas
It’s boring, and it’s predictable, but it’s what I see happening. If Houston is without Sasser for the tournament, or if he misses more than just the first round, then the Cougars would be much more vulnerable to an upset. But I’m operating under the assumption that Houston will have him by the time he’s necessary.
With Sasser, I think Houston is simply too strong offensively and defensively for any of the teams that could challenge it before the Elite Eight to do so. Indiana made me pause because Trayce Jackson-Davis is a lot for even the most elite defensive teams to manage. But ultimately, the Cougars have too much depth and too much at the rim.
Texas hasn’t seemed to skip a beat without Chris Beard, and it feels like something is really happening in Austin right now. I believe Texas’s defense is strong enough to keep a high-scoring team like Xavier enough at bay for Carr, Rice, and Tyrese Hunter to overcome on the other end. This team won the Big 12 Tournament without Timmy Allen, and he’s day-to-day with a lower leg injury. Odds are, he’d be around for a long run, which makes a powerful team that much stronger.
Final Four Representative: 2 Texas
Texas has played six games on neutral courts this season and is 5-1 in those games, with the lone loss to Illinois in overtime back in December. We just saw what Texas can do on a neutral court in the Big 12 Tournament, and it was impressive.
Three of the biggest stats I look at when evaluating national championship contenders are field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, and turnovers, and the Longhorns excel in all three; they’re the Big 12’s best shooting team, have the league’s top free-throw conversion rate, and commit the fewest turnovers per game of anyone in the conference. Anything can happen in March, but this is a team well-equipped to go on a deep run in this tournament.