KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)Houston received the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night, the selection committee rewarding the Cougars at the expense of Kansas, which had been hoping its national title defense would include a stop just down the road from its campus in Lawrence.
Instead, the top-ranked Cougars will try to reach their hometown Final Four starting off in Birmingham, Alabama, with the potential of playing a Sweet 16 game and a regional final in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Cougars (31-3) lost to Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game Sunday. They were playing without Marcus Sasser, the league player of the year and likely All-American, who had strained his groin in the first half of their semifinals and will be a question mark leading up to Thursday’s opener against Northern Kentucky.
“The most important thing is Marcus, not winning,” Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said about his decision to hold Sasser out Sunday. “His health going forward is the most important thing here.”
The selection committee usually takes into consideration injuries – and the possibility a team will be without a star – when it seeds the field. But chairman Chris Reynolds said Houston still earned the second overall seed over Kansas, which expects to have recovering coach Bill Self back after he missed the Big 12 Tournament, thanks to its body of work this season.
“They were competitive in all their games they lost except today,” Reynolds said, “and we understand today they weren’t with their best player. For that reason, we put Houston at No. 2 (overall).”
The No. 1 seed is the first for the Cougars since 1983, the height of their Phi Slama Jama era, when Hall of Fame coach Guy Lewis led Clyde Drexel and Co. to the first of their back-to-back national championship games.
Texas (26-8) earned the No. 2 seed in the Midwest after finishing second in the Big 12 in the regular season and romping past the Jayhawks in Saturday night’s conference title game despite missing injured forward Timmy Allen.
It was quite a reward for the Longhorns, who endured the firing of Chris Beard early in the season amid allegations of domestic violence and rallied around interim coach Rodney Terry, who led them to their most wins since 2010-11.
“We have tried to respect every opponent that we played this season with the thought in mind that every game is an NCAA Tournament game,” said Terry, whose team will play No. 15 seed Colgate on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I thought our guys have had an incredible run this entire season,” Terry added. “Our body of work, our strength of schedule, playing in the best league in the country – you know, I think we made a good case for what came our way.”
THE REST OF THE REGION
Xavier earned the No. 3 seed and will play No. 14 seed Kennesaw State, making its first NCAA trip, on Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Musketeers are in the field for the first time since 2008 in the first year of Sean Miller’s second term.
Indiana and All-America candidate Trayce Jackson Davis are the fourth seed and will play No. 13 seed Kent State in Albany, New York. Flashes coach Rob Senderoff was on then-coach Sampson’s staff at Indiana from 2006-08.
Miami earned the No. 5 seed and will play Missouri Valley champ Drake on Friday in Albany. Iowa State is seeded sixth and will play the winner of a First Four game between Mississippi State and Pittsburgh. Seventh-seeded Texas A&M will play Penn State on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, while eighth-seeded Iowa faces Auburn on Thursday in Birmingham.
ROAD TO HOUSTON
The Cougars have one of the nation’s best backcourts in Sasser – assuming he’s healthy – and Jamal Shead, and they have plenty of experience on the big stage, going to the Final Four two years ago and the Elite Eight last season. That makes them the heavy favorite to escape the Midwest Region and play in another Final Four at NRG Stadium.
There is plenty of star power in the Midwest, though, and that means plenty of teams that can make a run.
The Musketeers are led by star guard Souley Boom, Indiana twice beat Purdue this season, Miami has high-scoring Isaiah Wong and Iowa State and Texas A&M played in two of the nation’s toughest leagues in the Big 12 and SEC.
“We do not have the best players; we have never had the best players,” Aggies coach Buzz Williams said. “We do not have the best coaches, I’m for sure not the best coach. But I don’t think our program is built on I’m trying to be the best coach or this player is trying to be the best player. We’re trying to be the best team that we can be.”
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