KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This is what a 68-team bracket has forced us to care about …
Northwestern absolutely choking its way out of a tournament it would have no shot at unless there was a 68-team bracket.
Look, I get all the national love for the Wildcats. It's a nice story that a school known more its catchy ledes than buzzer beaters is this close to getting in the tournament for the first time. But this is what they didn't tell us when the bracket expanded a couple of years ago: The bubble was dumbed down.
Had the 64-team field remained, Northwestern's overtime loss to Minnesota Thursday in the Big Ten tournament would have been an NIT footnote. But the expanded bubble being what it is, we must care – about bad basketball. Even now after destiny's Debbie Downers in Evanston frittered another one away.
Northwestern isn't the only one. Washington (1-7 against the top 50) won the Pac-12 regular-season title but is now a question mark after losing to Oregon State. Hold your nose but Arizona may have forced itself into the conversation, if not the bracket. This was all for good for Texas, which played one of the more compelling games of the day in a Big 12 tournament quarterfinal against Iowa State.
Compelling because Texas continues to be a member of that dreaded bubble for the first time in a long time. They have been tournament regulars under Rick Barnes. Not this season in a tenuous transition season with six freshmen. Things were looking up late Thursday when the young Horns showed some finishing ability – please note, Northwestern – in a 71-65 win over the Cyclones.
At halftime, with his team trailing, Horns coach Rick Barnes took to the dry erase board to state the obvious.
“I wrote it down ‘NIT or NCAA'. Which one would you put your name under right now?” Barnes said. “Whichever one you want, I assure you you're going to have to earn it.”
So they did, with their best basketball of the season. After Iowa State opened the second half with a 7-0 run, the Horns responded with a 22-4 run of their own. Suddenly, Texas is hot. It has 20 wins, a benchmark of some sort among bubble teams, right? It was won three out of the last four going into Friday's semifinal against Missouri.
It has what Northwestern and other bubble boys don't. Bracket credibility, if only for day. Maybe the best thing you can say about Barnes' team is that it looks less bad that some of the others. The Longhorns have now won 10 conference games while playing in one of the few high major conferences with a round-robin schedule (18 games).
The baby Horns grew up a little Thursday night. Freshman guard Myck Kapongo played 39 minutes, with no turnovers for the first time in his 32-game career.
“We're not young no more,” he said.
If the Horns have an advantage in the NCAA basketball committee room this weekend, it is because of pedigree. Only Michigan State, Duke and Kansas have longer NCAA tournament streaks than Barnes does at Texas (13 consecutive years). This is not one of Barnes' classic teams. The Longhorns struggle to score mightily. Three of those freshman start.
I'm not going to tell you that Texas doesn't belong in the tournament. Not after what I saw and read on Thursday. What makes Texas any worse than Northwestern or Washington or Colorado State or Seton Hall or Miami or South Florida?
When you get to this level of desperation you count “good” losses. Texas has plenty of them -- six, against top 10 opponents. Eight of its 12 losses have come against the top 25.
At the beginning of the day, Jerry Palm had the Longhorns out. I'm not going to say he's wrong. I'm going to refer him to a gutty second half comeback, those maturing freshmen and Rick Barnes.
“We fought back,” he said.
Beats the heck out of Northwestern.