Texas, the No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region, is making its 15th appearance in the NCAA Tournament in the last 16th seasons. Last season was the year that broke Texas’ lengthy string of trips to the Big Dance. To the man, the Longhorns are happy to be back in the tournament and hope to continue their success in the opening round of 64.
The Longhorns (23-10, 11-7) will face the 10th seed in the Midwest Region, the Arizona State Sun Devils (21-11, 10-8) at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee in the late game on Thursday night.
The Sun Devils finished the regular season in a five-way tie for third place in the Pac-12 Conference. They are coming into the tournament, however, on somewhat of a down note, having lost their last three games and five of their last seven. Diminutive sophomore guard Jahii Carson is Arizona State’s leading scorer, with an 18.9 points-per-game average and 4.3 assists.
The Sun Devils have a strong presence inside with 7-2 senior center Jordan Bachynski, who leads the country with 4.2 blocked shots per game. Bachynski also is good for 11.2 points per game and 8.4 rebounds.
Texas will counter Arizona State’s size on the frontline with some big men of its own. Cameron Ridley stands 6-9 and is a wide body in the middle. Ridley averages 11.9 points a game. The Longhorns’ leading scorer, Jonathan Holmes, is 6-8 and averages 13 points and 8 rebounds. They also can bring in a couple of bigs off the bench in 6-10 sophomore Prince Ebeh and 6-9 Connor Lammert, who give Rick Barnes’ team some quality minutes when they are in the game.
Texas had been renowned in the past for having strong offensive teams that could score. This year, however, the Longhorns’ success this season can be attributed more to sound defense and strong rebounding, two elements of the game that Barnes knew his team would have to improve upon in 2013-14 if they wanted to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
According to the RPI rankings, Texas is 37th with a 3-3 record against teams in the top 25 this season. Arizona State is 44th in RPI and is just 1-3 vs. top-25 teams.
Since the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 64 teams, Texas is 16-8 in its opening game and 5-2 in its last seven.
The two teams have never met in the NCAA Tournament, but have played four times previously in the regular season. Texas leads the all-time series 3-1.
My pick: Texas 69, Arizona State 64