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NCAA tournament bracketology: Houston will be a tricky topic on Selection Sunday

Fabian White Jr. (35) and Jamal Shead (1) have helped Houston get off to a 15-2 start this season. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
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It’s never too soon to take a guess about which team will produce some of the more nuanced conversations for the NCAA basketball committee as it selects and seeds the 68-team tournament field.

One distinct possibility? Houston.

The Cougars (15-2, 4-0 American Athletic) reached the Final Four last season and appeared loaded for another deep run this March. Their performance has lived up to those expectations. Houston is two possessions away from a perfect record, with losses to Wisconsin (65-63) and Alabama (83-82) the only blots on their record.

It’s the stuff going on beyond the Cougars’ control that’s problematic.

Sophomore guard Tramon Mark, who averaged 10.1 points in seven games, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in December. Just days later, leading scorer Marcus Sasser (17.7 ppg) was lost for the rest of the year due to foot surgery.

That hasn’t stopped Houston from winning, but the payoff from its more recent triumphs (and those still to come) could be muted because of the absence of high-end foils in the American. The Cougars are the only AAC team in the top 50 of the NET, and the only program from the league in this week’s Washington Post field of 68 projection.

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Based on current numbers, Houston would have only three more opportunities at Quadrant 1 victories the rest of the regular season: Trips to Cincinnati (Feb. 6), Southern Methodist (Feb. 9) and Memphis (March 6). Road games against teams that finish in the top 75 of the NET count as Quad 1 games, while neutral site (top 50) and home (top 30) games have different cutoffs.

Games like Jan. 29 at Central Florida or Feb. 20 at Wichita State could wind up as Quadrant 1 games if those teams turn in strong performances in league play. Of course, Cincinnati, Memphis or SMU could fall out of the top 75, too.

All of which is to suggest Houston doesn’t have a deep well of opportunities to impress and plenty of games that could chip away at its seeding.

There are some good developments for the Cougars. Their victory over Oregon in the Maui-but-not-in-Maui Invitational appears to be growing in value. A December triumph over Oklahoma State on a neutral court has retained its usefulness as the Cowboys have set about to play spoiler in the Big 12 despite serving a postseason ban.

And most importantly, Houston continues to win. Saturday’s 66-64 victory at Tulsa extended the Cougars’ winning streak to seven.

That’s the best Kelvin Sampson’s team can hope to do. Houston can’t count on much help from the American, which has never been a one-bid league since its split with the Catholic Seven that form the core of the current Big East, yet could be this season.

But quantity can impress to nearly the same degree as quality, and the Cougars can still claim a gaudy bracket placement — perhaps even matching last year’s No. 2 seed. They just don’t have as much margin as they would have liked or anticipated when the season began.

Field notes

Last four included: Oregon, Texas A&M, Miami, Arkansas

First four on the outside: St. Bonaventure, Belmont, Mississippi State, UAB

Next four on the outside: Florida, Notre Dame, Central Florida, Boise State

Moving in: Arkansas, Cal State Fullerton, Grand Canyon, Longwood, Norfolk State, Oregon, Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas Christian, Texas State, UNC Wilmington, Wyoming

Moving out: Belmont, Central Florida, Coppin State, Drexel, Florida, Gardner-Webb, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisville, Memphis, New Mexico State, Nicholls State, UC Irvine

Conference call: Big 12 (8), Big East (7), Big Ten (7), Southeastern (7), Atlantic Coast (4), Pac-12 (4), West Coast (4), Mountain West (3)

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Bracket projection

West vs. East, South vs. Midwest

West Region

Portland, Ore.

(1) WEST COAST/Gonzaga vs. (16) SWAC/Southern-SOUTHLAND/Texas A&M Corpus Christi winner

(8) Seton Hall vs. (9) North Carolina

Buffalo

(5) Texas Tech vs. (12) Oregon-Texas A&M winner

(4) Michigan State vs. (13) AMERICA EAST/Vermont

Indianapolis

(3) Kentucky vs. (14) PATRIOT/Navy

(6) Southern California vs. (11) Wake Forest

Pittsburgh

(7) Iowa vs. (10) Oklahoma

(2) BIG EAST/Villanova vs. (15) BIG SKY/Weber State

No one did more nationally last week to help themselves than Oregon, which swept Southern California and UCLA on the road. … Texas A&M doesn’t have much going for it beyond defeats of Arkansas and Notre Dame, but the Aggies are 15-2. At some point, that becomes hard to ignore. …

All 14 of Kentucky’s victories have come by double figures, including a 107-79 blitz of Tennessee on Saturday. The Wildcats’ three losses have all come by eight points or less. … Quietly, Iowa has continued to improve its profile. Beating Indiana and Minnesota last week provided a multiline boost for the Hawkeyes.

East Region

San Diego

(1) PAC-12/Arizona vs. (16) BIG WEST/Cal State Fullerton

(8) San Diego State vs. (9) ATLANTIC 10/Davidson

Milwaukee

(5) Providence vs. (12) Arkansas-Miami winner

(4) Illinois vs. (13) HORIZON/Oakland

Buffalo

(3) AMERICAN ATHLETIC/Houston vs. (14) NORTHEAST/Wagner

(6) Tennessee vs. (11) Marquette

Fort Worth, Texas

(7) Brigham Young vs. (10) OHIO VALLEY/Murray State

(2) BIG 12/Kansas vs. (15) ATLANTIC SUN/Liberty

Davidson remains the only Atlantic 10 team in the field, but St. Bonaventure — now off a pause and 10-3 after clobbering VCU on Friday — is closing in on at-large territory. For its part, Davidson’s 13-game winning streak is tied with Auburn for the nation’s longest. … Illinois missed a chance to jump up a line with its double-overtime loss to Purdue on Monday. …

Marquette has won four in a row, including three at home, and its victories over Providence and Seton Hall should serve it well. Still, they play five of their next seven away from Milwaukee, starting with Wednesday’s trip to Villanova. … Murray State took over the OVC lead with an 82-60 thumping of Belmont on the road on Saturday. The teams’ second meeting won’t come until Feb. 24 and could decide the league’s regular season title.

South Region

Greenville, S.C.

(1) SOUTHEASTERN/Auburn vs. (16) BIG SOUTH/Longwood-COLONIAL/UNC Wilmington

(8) Colorado State vs. (9) Indiana

Portland, Ore.

(5) Xavier vs. (12) SOUTHERN/Chattanooga

(4) Iowa State vs. (13) METRO ATLANTIC/Iona

Milwaukee

(3) BIG TEN/Wisconsin vs. (14) MID-AMERICAN/Ohio

(6) Connecticut vs. (11) Texas Christian

Greenville, S.C.

(7) Texas vs. (10) MOUNTAIN WEST/Wyoming

(2) ATLANTIC COAST/Duke vs. (15) IVY/Princeton

Colorado State bounced back from its first loss with consecutive victories over Utah State and San José State. The Rams’ victories over Creighton and Saint Mary’s (and, to a lesser extent, Mississippi State) in nonconference play are serving them well. … For as much as Iona has had its way in the Metro Atlantic, earning seven NCAA bids in the last 10 years, the Gaels are 6-0 in league play for only the second time in that span. Rick Pitino looks like he’ll have a dangerous team come March. …

Texas Christian took down Kansas State and Oklahoma last week to improve to 12-2. The Horned Frogs were a No. 10 seed on this exercise’s S-curve but needed to be moved down a line because of the surplus of No. 2 (Baylor and Kansas), No. 7 (Texas) and No. 10 (Oklahoma and TCU) seeds in the Big 12. TCU also has a nonconference strength of schedule problem (No. 321), but all it can do now is keep winning. … Texas has two victories over teams in this projected field: Oklahoma and West Virginia, both at home.

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Midwest Region

Indianapolis

(1) Purdue vs. (16) MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC/Norfolk State

(8) West Virginia vs. (9) San Francisco

San Diego

(5) Alabama vs. (12) CONFERENCE USA/Louisiana Tech

(4) UCLA vs. (13) WESTERN ATHLETIC/Grand Canyon

Pittsburgh

(3) Louisiana State vs. (14) SUMMIT/South Dakota State

(6) Ohio State vs. (11) Creighton

Fort Worth, Texas

(7) MISSOURI VALLEY/Loyola Chicago vs. (10) Saint Mary’s

(2) Baylor vs. (15) SUN BELT/Texas State

San Francisco missed an opportunity with its two-point loss at home Saturday to Brigham Young, but its overall profile remains strong. This is an important week for the Dons not to hurt themselves; a loss at Pepperdine would be much more damaging. … Three losses in a row have sent Alabama tumbling to the No. 5 line. The Jan. 8 loss at Missouri remains a puzzler. …

South Dakota State is 6-0 in Summit League play and has dropped at least 80 points in each conference game. The Jackrabbits lead the country in three-point percentage (.445) and already look like a formidable opponent for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed come March. … Back-to-back losses drop Baylor from the top overall seed to the No. 2 line. That’s not surprising with only a little more than half the season in the books.

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