Texas lands No. 3 seed in NCAA Tournament, highest since 2008, will face Abilene Christian
As happy as Kai Jones was Saturday night about winning the Big 12 Tournament — “Whoooo!” he shouted to reporters on a Zoom call — the Texas sophomore knew the fun was just beginning.
“March isn’t over, so I’m very proud of our guys,” Jones said. “I can’t wait to go to the NCAA Tournament and go play with them.”
Texas (19-7) will be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face 14th-seeded Abilene Christian at 8:50 p.m. on Saturday in the first round. The Wildcats (23-4) finished second in the Southland Conference regular season but got in by winning the league tournament.
Michigan and Alabama are the top two seeds in the East Region ahead of Texas. CBS analyst Clark Kellogg took one look at the bracket on Sunday and immediately labeled the Horns as his Final Four pick in the East.
Asked to describe Abilene Christian, Smart said, “Can I tell you in 24 hours?”
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Abilene Christian played what Smart called “an absolute war” against Texas Tech on Dec. 9. The Red Raiders won 51-44 in a slugfest. Coach Joe Golding’s club also played Arkansas tough two weeks later before falling 85-72.
“Nowadays, I’ve already had two people send me statistical analytical breakdowns on Abilene Christian that are not a part of our program,” Smart said Sunday night twith a laugh. Assistant coaches were already working the phones to get some idea of what to expect from ACU.
“I think the first thing is just gaining a level of respect for the opponent,” said Smart, who is 0-2 in two previous NCAA appearances at UT. “For us to be at our best, we’ve got to do A, B and C. The teams that advance here are going to do that.”
All games will be played in the Indianapolis area in a quarantined environment. The Longhorns flew directly to Indianapolis from Kansas City on Sunday after winning their first Big 12 Tournament championship and went straight into COVID-19 testing.
March Madness 2021:NCAA Tournament bracket analysis, team capsules for East Region
Smart said the team was allowed to watch the selection show together. But the entire travel party was then quarantined in their individual hotel rooms. Everyone must pass another test Monday before the team can come together and start practicing.
The NCAA has determined that each team must have at least five healthy players to play. The NCAA is also prepared to substitute any team that can’t meet that criteria up until 5 p.m. Tuesday. After that point, the bracket is locked.
By landing a No. 3 seed, Texas secured its highest spot in the NCAA Tournament since a No. 2 seed in 2008. Rick Barnes’ club lost to Memphis in the Elite Eight that year. The No. 3 seeds are 119-21 all-time against 14 seeds in NCAA Tournament history.
Texas was a No. 7 seed in 2014 and a No. 6 seed two years later in Smart’s first season. That team was on pace to beat Northern Iowa in the first round only to lose on a miraculous half-court buzzer-beater.
Smart’s teams have reached the NCAAs only one other time. In 2018, Texas lost in the first round to Nevada. The following year, the Horns missed the NCAA cut but went on to win the NIT championship at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Last season, Texas was thought be on the right side of the NCAA bubble going into the Big 12 Tournament. However, the event was canceled with the onset of the pandemic. The NCAA Tournament was also canceled as the sports world came to a screeching halt.
“First selection I’ve been apart. Kind of exciting,” guard Andrew Jones tweeted.
This has already been a special season. Texas finished alone in third place in the Big 12 standings. Then, UT defeated Oklahoma State 91-86 on Saturday night at T-Mobile Center to earn the league’s automatic NCAA bid.
Matt Coleman III scored a career-high 30 points and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Jericho Sims also had a career-high 21 points and season-high 14 rebounds, one shy of matching his career best.
It was the first time in school history that UT won the Big 12 tournament. The Horns were previously 0-6 in the championship game.
UT athletic director Chris Del Conte, who made the decision to keep Smart last March, was on the floor celebrating with the players as they cut down the net.
By winning that game, Texas likely secured the No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. By losing, Oklahoma State fell back to the No. 4 line, which feels low given the Cowboys’ 20-8 record.
How stacked is the Big 12? Seven Big 12 teams made the NCAAs. Five earned a No. 4 seed or higher. Baylor is the No. 1 seed in the South Region. How good is the coaching? Six Big 12 coaches have led teams to the Final Four.
But the Horns are now focused solely on themselves. The high of winning the Big 12 Tournament now must be put aside. All that matters is Abilene Christian.
“I just think people are on kind of high right now as it relates to emotion,” Smart said. “It’s important for us to process the game from (Saturday) night, move forward and understand that we are in here in Indy now and we do have a new mission, a new goal.
“I’ll tell you when I know for sure is when we get on the practice court.”