DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Penn State has been historically more likely to play Texas on a national stage in a football bowl game than the NCAA Tournament.
On Saturday night, the Midwest Region matchup between two gridiron giants will be on the hardcourt for the first meeting in men’s basketball.
It just may present one of the most intriguing — and meaningful — second round games.
The teams are coming off sharp debuts in Des Moines, particularly on defense and from the 3-point line. Both programs, in their own way, would experience a sense of satisfaction from reaching the second weekend of the tournament.
Then there are their beloved head coaches.
Penn State (23-13) took a big step forward in Micah Shrewsberry’s second season, reaching the Big Ten Tournament championship game and posting the first NCAA Tournament win in 20 years by disposing of Texas A&M on Thursday night.
Shrewsberry has been mentioned as a candidate for high-profile openings at Georgetown and Notre Dame, but the 10th-seeded Nittany Lions would love to make his case for a long-term raise to make Penn State his permanent home.
“When the season ends, I have time to think about things like that. Right now, I’ve got my hands full with Texas and how are we going to guard Marcus Carr. I’ve been on the wrong side of some Marcus Carr scoring outbursts when he was at Minnesota,” Shrewsberry said on Friday, referring to his two years as an assistant at Purdue. “Once we crack that code we will be thinking about other things later.”
Texas (27-8) has also been playing for a greater purpose, in a quest to get the interim tag removed from Rodney Terry’s title after he replaced Chris Beard in a tumultuous start to this season. The Longhorns matched their season high with 13 made 3-pointers in their win over Colgate, shutting down the nation’s best outside shooting team and giving Terry his first career NCAA Tournament victory.
“When the leader at the head is someone who is calm and poised it makes it that much easier for me as a point guard to continue to be calm and poised,” Carr said. “It just flows throughout the whole entire team. He does a great job of that.”
The Longhorns have not advanced past the second round since 2008. Their last trip to the Final Four was in 2003, when Terry was an assistant coach.
The Nittany Lions have had far less success as a program, with just five NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 58 years. Their 2019-20 team would have made it had the pandemic not canceled the tournament that year — another source of motivation for this group. Myles Dread and Seth Lundy — two of their top five scorers this season — have stuck around since then.
“Being a part of that team was definitely something special. Me and Myles’ relationship with those guys is like no other,” Lundy said. “It was a very connected team, and we’re still connected to this day.”
HOME COURT ADVANTAGE?
This sure doesn’t seem fair. Houston is the top seed in the Midwest Region, but the Cougars (32-3) will essentially be the road team when they face ninth-seeded Auburn in the second round at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Tigers, after all, will be playing in their home state, just a two-hour drive from their campus in east Alabama. The issue has become such a talking point that the NCAA felt compelled to release a statement explaining how it assembles the brackets.
“By principle, the Division I men’s basketball committee protects the top four seeds in each region against a home-court disadvantage in the first round of the tournament,” the NCAA said. “The committee does not adjust from its bracketing principles for the purpose of avoiding a potential home-court disadvantage beyond the first round.”
Auburn (21-12) is thrilled to be playing so close to home, though the players were quick to point out on Friday that they had nothing to do with putting these pairings together.
“It wasn’t our fault that we got picked as the ninth seed and ended up in Birmingham,” guard Zep Jasper said. “That’s what we were hoping for, but we didn’t know we were going to be in Birmingham.”
For Tigers guard Wendell Green Jr., any complaints just sound like ready-made excuses for the Cougars to fall back on if they spring the upset. Houston is a 5 1/2-point favorite, per FanDuel Sportsbook odds.
“But that’s nothing we can control,” Green said. “We can only control what we can. They put us in Birmingham. It’s just a great opportunity for us.”
Houston appears vulnerable after scraping by 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky in a 63-52 victory in the first round on Thursday, especially when All-American guard Marcus Sasser pulled himself out of the game in the first half because of nagging discomfort with his groin muscle.
Sasser was first injured last weekend in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. He had five points in 14 minutes against Northern Kentucky, but said Friday he’ll be ready to go against the Tigers.
Houston’s players shrugged off playing in Auburn’s backyard, stressing that they’ve thrived away from home all season. Indeed, the Cougars are 16-1 in road and neutral-site games, their only loss coming in the AAC final when Sasser sat out.
“The luck of the draw,” point guard Jamal Shead said. “They got a lucky draw.”
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said he hopes Alabama’s sizable contingent in the 17,000-seat arena will help even out the support. The Crimson Tide, who have the top seed in the South Region, will be playing the late game against Maryland. Alabama and Auburn are bitter rivals, of course.
“We’re playing Auburn,” Sampson said, mentioning the early-evening start time. “Let’s go. We need some help. Roll Tide!”
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed from Birmingham, Alabama.
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