It’s never too early to speculate about the NCAA tournament, and nearly a month from Selection Sunday, a few clues are emerging as to which teams might be coming to Austin.
The University of Texas is an early-round host for the first time since 1995 and, if 19th-ranked Oklahoma State keeps winning, the Big 12-based Cowboys would be a natural fit.
No. 17 New Mexico also would make a lot of sense. The selection committee tries to limit travel for top-four seeds, and the Lobos could grab one of those seeds.
“It’s a little early to figure how it’s going to play out, who the top-line seeds will be,” NCAA committee chairman Mike Bobinski said Wednesday. “Clearly there is a geographic component to that.
“We try to protect those top seeds with the very best location we can provide for them. So I would suspect that Austin will end up with a team that is reasonably geographically favorable.”
Oklahoma State isn’t that far from early-round host Kansas City, Mo., but KC figures to be anchored by Kansas and K-State.
New Mexico is closer to host Salt Lake City than Austin, but other Mountain West teams, Pacific 12 powers and fifth-ranked Gonzaga are better fits.
No. 3 Miami or No. 7 Florida is another logical possibility for Austin, which will be assigned eight teams.
There are no Deep South early-round hosts and four sites clumped in the Midwest/Mid-South, creating travel challenges for top teams like the ACC-leading Hurricanes and SEC-leading Gators.
“It becomes a little problematic. Geography is a clear consideration,” Bobinski said. “We recognize it’s important for fan access and to be able to get teams to the best sites for them. We try really hard to do that, especially for top-four seeds.”
Baylor is the only Big 12 team from Texas likely to make the tournament, but the Bears, who profile as a 10 or 11 seed, probably won’t climb enough to earn a ticket to Austin.
Right now the selection committee is doing a dress rehearsal in Indianapolis. Defending national champion Kentucky will be a hot topic. Wildcats center Nerlens Noel, a potential No. 1 overall pick in the next NBA draft, tore an ACL on Tuesday night and is out for the season.
“We have about 4 1/2 weeks to see how Kentucky performs without him in the lineup, and that will tell the story of how we ultimately judge Kentucky,” Bobinski said. “It’s way too early to judge them in, out or in between.”
Bobinski expects a wide-open tournament, devoid of prohibitive favorites.
“There have been any number of extraordinary games, upsets, shakeups in the polls,” he said. “To me, it’s been an amazing season to this point.”
Important dates leading up to the NCAA tournament at the Erwin Center:
Feb. 22-23: BracketBuster games
Feb. 26: Mid-major tournaments begin
March 13-16: Big 12 tournament
March 17: Selection Sunday
March 19-20: NCAA First Four games
March 21-24: NCAA second, third rounds (22nd, 24th at Erwin Center)