John P. Lopez – The state of basketball: Texas’ Final Four presence at NRG could be historic

Feb 16, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson with guard Tramon Mark (12) near the bench during the second half against the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Moody Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

John P. Lopez – The state of basketball: Texas’ Final Four presence at NRG could be historic

The Houston Cougars are the best team in college basketball. The Aggies and Longhorns are among the hottest teams in the country. And the most dangerous team might be the Baylor Bears.

It’s time to plant the seeds, so to speak.

Come April 1-3 at NRG Stadium, this football state of ours just might make the East Coast basketball elitists curse a blue streak and turn all those highbrow Tobacco Road hoops heads into chain smokers.

In 2023, the State of Texas is college basketball’s huckleberry.

It’s more than possible. It is in fact a delicious possibility on so many levels that the road to the Final Four just might turn into a trip down memory lane of the old Southwest Conference.

Most important: It’s no fluke. The roots and strength of the game Texas teams now play goes back decades and are growing deeper and stronger. No longer when a team from Texas reaches the Final Four is it considered a cute story or lightning-in-a-bottle. For UH and Texas, it would be no surprise to reach NRG Stadium. And if you squint, others could get there or join them.

Especially considering that at least three teams currently are projected as top-three seeds, just a little luck with the bracket layout could make heads spin.

Of course, that’s not to say all four teams – or another Texas tournament team like TCU — will reach the college game’s pinnacle. There are far too many quality teams that will be in the field, far too many things that must fall in place, and the odds are, as always, there will be madness.

Seeding, the bracket layout, upsets, good fortune.

But neither is it to say there could not be a scenario where one, two, maybe even more teams from Texas find themselves dancing all the way to Houston, either. Four teams? Secondary market brokers can dream, can’t they?

A strong Final Four presence in Houston could mean much more than bragging rights and state pride. For the deep, if often widely unrecognized basketball culture in this state, it would be validation of an undeniable truth that has been in the making for two decades. One of the best basketball states in the game would finally get its recognition.

This state consistently has produced elite players and boasts some of the best high school coaches in the country. Too often, however, that talent has left Texas and starred at more storied basketball meccas in the NCAA Tournament. To name just a few: Deron Williams, Julius Randle, Emeka Okafor, De’Aaron Fox, Mookie Blaylock, Larry Johnson, Kenyon Martin, Darrell Arthur. The list is long and inglorious. With so much talent and a long-thriving summer ball system, the frustration level of grooming superstars only to see them play elsewhere has been epic.

But today, Houston is a lock to be a No. 1 seed in the Tournament. The Longhorns definitely should be a No. 2 seed. The Aggies have a legitimate chance to win the Southeastern Conference, earn a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, and have beaten the likes of Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri during its white-hot streak over the past three weeks. Baylor, projected as a No. 3 seed, has been erratic over that same span, but has legitimate top-10 talent and has been hardened by the uber-tough Big 12 schedule.

Why is it all happening now? It’s not. It’s been percolating for at least five years.

We can thank the investment big-time Texas programs have put into their basketball programs and facilities, but more than anything, thank some of the best coaches in the game buying in and building true basketball cultures at proven football schools.

And thank Chris Beard, Baylor’s Scott Drew, UH’s Kelvin Sampson, and the Aggies’ Buzz Williams.

When then-Texas Tech coach Chris Beard broke the seal in 2019, leading the Red Raiders to the NCAA Championship Game, the signs were clear. Talent can stay in Texas and thrive under great coaching. Two years later, two Texas teams advanced to the Final Four, with Baylor defeating Houston in the Final Four on the way to the school’s first national championship since 1950.

That stretch of success by three different Texas programs made waves across the game, and now two years later, nothing is considered a fluke. Nothing is a one-off for Texas teams when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Anything seems possible.

And at the core of it all, are Texas roots. Chris Beard made the jump to the Longhorns after the Texas Tech run. He ultimately was fired for off-field issues at Texas, but he is a former Texas high school coach and built the program quickly. Texas interim coach Rodney Terry also is a product of Texas high school basketball who coached at the high school level here. Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams, who took much more storied programs (Marquette and Virginia Tech) to multiple NCAA Tournaments, was born and raised near Celina, Tx. When the Aggies called, he jumped at the opportunity. Over the last two seasons, Williams’ Aggies have won 48 games and counting.

The state of basketball has never been stronger. It just took a while for people to notice. Anything seems possible.

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