Holy moly, this isn’t how the men’s basketball season was supposed to play out in Texas.
The state’s only teams in the final national rankings come from two private schools, and neither one received a single vote in the AP preseason poll. And in a cruel twist of fate, just one of them can reach the Sweet 16.
Eleventh-ranked SMU and No. 12 Baylor were lumped into the same four-team pod in Tulsa, Okla. If they win their NCAA Tournament openers on Friday, they will meet in the second round Sunday.
“At least we’ll be close to home,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose third-seeded team will open against Western Athletic Conference Tournament champ New Mexico State. “The last two years, we were sent to Jacksonville, Fla., and Providence, R.I., so this is a treat for us and our fans.”
Yet SMU’s designation as a No. 6 seed, which was universally panned by analysts who saw the Mustangs as a third or fourth seed, creates the possibility of a second-round matchup between the Ponies and Bears that shouldn’t happen until the Sweet 16.
“I really could start whining; I certainly think we deserved better,” said SMU coach Tim Jankovich, whose team will begin play against the Providence-USC winner, “but the truth is, they’re just numbers. It’s like the preseason rankings. Just silly numbers.”
SMU’s numbers are quite stunning. The Mustangs (30-4) have reeled off 16 victories in a row, the nation’s third-longest winning streak behind Vermont (21) and Princeton (19). After starting 4-3, SMU is 26-1 and swept the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships.
“Our confidence is sky high,” said senior guard Sterling Brown, who scored 18 points in the American Athletic Conference title game. “We’ve gelled, and it shows. I feel like we’ll make a good run in the (NCAA) Tournament.”
SMU has pulled this off with a roster of three-star recruits and one blue-chipper, junior forward Semi Ojeleye, a transfer from Duke.
“Our chemistry is as good as any team in the country,” said Ojeleye, the AAC player of the year who averages 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds.
The Mustangs have an unusual makeup. They start five almost interchangeable players, each between 6 feet, 6 inches and 6-8. They only go six deep, but they don’t foul. They are in the NCAA top 10 in scoring margin, rebounding margin, 3-point shooting, field-goal percentage defense and fewest fouls.
“I just keep being amazed by what they do night after night,” Jankovich said.
Baylor wants a shot at SMU to settle who’s the best in Texas. The former Southwest Conference rivals haven’t met in 13 years.
But the Bears are taking nothing for granted, not after being ousted from the NCAAs in each of the past two seasons by double-digit seeds Yale and Georgia State.
“That’s all we’re hearing about this week: ‘Don’t get bounced in the first round,’” said senior guard Ish Wainright, who will become the first Baylor player to participate in four NCAA Tournaments. “I’m pretty sure we’re properly motivated.”
Drew said New Mexico State (28-5), which had a 20-game winning streak at one point this season, doesn’t look like a mid-major squad.
“Sometimes when you play teams from other conferences, they might not have the size and athleticism, but these guys do,” he said. “They are long, like to press and are led by a fifth-year point guard.”
Baylor (25-7) has been on a different track than SMU. The Bears started 15-0, reached No. 1 in the country for the first time ever but finished 5-6 and as a banged-up team.
All-America power forward Johnathan Motley is playing with a dislocated finger. Point guard Manu Lecomte, the Big 12 newcomer of the year, has dealt with a sprained right ankle.
“If there’s a silver lining about losing early in the Big 12 Tournament, it’s having time to get healthy,” Drew said. “We’re in better shape than we’ve been for quite some time.”