Second chances of March
Selection suspense turns into tough reality: Houston Cougars face Maryland;Texas gets Wake Forest in NCAA Tournament
Tom Penders only gave polite applause for the national CBS cameras that chose the University of Houston for one of its NCAA Tournament selection show live shots. After all the improbable highs of the last five days, the Cougars coach realized his team suddenly only had a monster-sized challenge ahead.
Houston (19-15) — the team with the dead coach resuscitated that's become a national darling for its unlikely run into March — gets ACC power Maryland (23-8) in the first round of college basketball's showcase event. The Cougars will play Maryland on Friday in Spokane, Washington. Penders, the coach who has received less support from his own school than that provided by a broken bra most of this season, found himself squarely in the spotlight for Sunday's selection show with CBS bringing a camera crew to UH.
That's what happens when you've been deemed a Cinderella — and that's exactly the position, the Cougars are in. Houston is a 13th seed, one of the spots usually reserved for the biggest of dreamers. Maryland, which went 13-3 in the tough ACC, will be heavily favored in Friday's game.
Not that the guy who probably would have lost his job if he hadn't gotten the Cougars into the NCAAs for the first time in 18 years can complain.
Penders used to be a hot name in college basketball coaching. He's one of only eight coaches who have taken four different schools to the NCAA Tournament (Rhode Island, Texas, George Washington and now Houston). But the 64-year-old Penders hasn't seen the NCAAs in the 21st century — a century that's now into its second decade.
That changes on Friday.
"We're dancing, we're dancing," Penders told the Associated Press. "I may be dancing a little slower than I was the last time I went (1999 with GW), but we're dancing."
Houston didn't even have a winning record going into the Conference USA tournament. It was barely in consideration for one of the lesser postseason tournaments that nobody watches (sorry NIT) let alone college basketball's big dance. But the Cougars just kept winning, four games in four days, finishing the improbable run with a most improbable rally — coming back from nine points down with only nine minutes to play against a UTEP team that came into Saturday having won 16 straight games.
They did it with Penders set to be fired or "nudged" out the door by UH officials. It wouldn't be a surprise if Houston had already started planning the Penders departure press conference.
Houston player Aubrey Coleman — the nation's leading scorer — publicly railed against the consistent speculation that Penders would be fired after the Cougars won Conference USA's automatic tournament berth. This is a team that's rallied around a dead coach walking.
Coleman was one of the Cougars jumping around for CBS cameras, while his coach sat rather still, giving his clap.
Meanwhile, Texas (24-9) gets Wake Forest (19-10) — another ACC team — in the first round. The Longhorns are an 8th seed playing a ninth seed, a matchup that is traditionally a toss up. The Texas-Wake Forest game will take place Thursday in New Orleans.
Texas came into this season as one of the favorites to win the national title. The Longhorns were the No. 1 ranked team in the country as late as mid January. But those days now seem like they happened several light years ago — and perhaps another dimension away.
Rick Barnes' team staggers into the tournament like a drunk on Bourbon Street. After a 17-0 start, the Longhorns have gone 8-9, looking like one of the more pedestrian teams in the country in the process. No one fears this Texas team.
This marks the Longhorns' 12th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but this is the worst seed they've had in a long time.
The No. 1 overall seeds are Kansas (Midwest), Kentucky (East), Duke (South) and Syracuse (West). The Duke selection is by far the most controversial of the No.1s with West Virginia and Ohio State both carrying legitimate arguments that their teams deserved to be a No. 1 over the Dick Vitale-loved Blue Devils.