Closing the deal: How men’s basketball can make March Madness
For the first time in seven seasons, the Cougars — who own a 16-4 record so far — have a good shot of making March Madness.
The Cougars are in a great spot right now, and if they finish strong, a NCAA tournament spot is surely in their future.
But the process of getting from conference play to the NCAA tournament can be confusing. How do teams qualify, and what does Houston need to do with its 10 remaining games to earn a spot?
Getting to the NCAA Tournament
The winner of the AAC Championship automatically gets a spot in the NCAA tournament, and that is the simplest way for Houston to qualify. Thirty-two conference champion teams join the bracket this way, barring any suspensions.
Otherwise, teams need to earn one of the 36 at-large spots chosen by the NCAA selection committee.
The committee uses a variety of criteria to select the remaining teams and rank them. The bottom eight teams play in the “first four,” and the winners advance to the final 64 teams that make up the NCAA tournament.
The American Athletic Conference has only existed for four seasons, and the most spots it has received to the NCAA Tournament is four, in 2014 and 2016, while only two of its teams received invitations in 2015 and 2017.
The addition of Wichita State made the AAC stronger this season, and it may receive more bids due to the conference’s higher level of play.
The most losses that an AAC team has had and still made the tournament was 11 in 2016, when Temple got in with a 21-11 record.
But last year, SMU and Cincinnati made it in with six and five losses respectively while Houston, with 11 losses and a poor conference tournament performance, failed to make the cut despite ranking third in the conference.
To secure a spot before the conference tournament, UH needs to do a few things.
Defeat another tournament-level team
The Cougars’ recent win against Wichita State will help Houston’s resume tremendously, but having another win against a tournament-level team could secure their spot in the NCAA contest.
The Cougars have two home and two away games left against SMU and Cincinnati that give UH a good chance to earn those wins.
SMU is only 15-7 this season, but it defeated Wichita State days before Houston did and has won the AAC twice in the last four years.
Eighth-ranked Cincinnati has made it to the NCAA tournament for seven seasons in a row, making the Sweet 16 once and second round four times.
A win against Cincinnati in particular would give Houston two wins over a top 10 team and almost cement its spot in the tournament.
If Houston can take a road win against either squad, that would strengthen one of the team’s most glaring resume weaknesses.
Win on the road
That weakness takes the form of a 4-3 away record, which includes a blowout loss against Wichita State, compared to the Cougars’ 10-0 home win streak.
Every single game in the NCAA tournament will be a road game, so UH needs to prove it can perform well outside of H&PE Arena.
The Cougars have five road games left — they will face SMU, Cincinnati, Memphis, UCF and Temple. Wins against teams such as Memphis (13-8), which is 12-2 at home, and UCF (13-7), with 8-2 record at home, will show the selection committee that UH can defeat strong teams on their own courts.
Houston’s best chance to win may be against the Temple Owls, who are 11-10 overall and 5-4 at home. They cannot be underestimated, however, as Temple has lost many games by three points or less, including games against Cincinnati and Houston, and is better than its record shows.
Even if UH wins those three games and loses to Cincinnati and SMU on the road, it will end the season with a 7-5 road record, which is far from awful.
Clean up at home
Lastly, UH needs to take care of business at home. The Cougars already defeated 11th place East Carolina in Pirate waters, so beating them again in Houston shouldn’t be a problem.
Tulane defeated the Cougars earlier this season and also beat defending conference champions SMU, so the Green Wave is capable of beating UH again.
But in the Cougars’ defense, the ice storm that delayed the semester’s start also threw off their usual pregame routine, which delayed their arrival in New Orleans to just a few hours before tip-off.
The Cougars’ last regular season opponent will be 2014 national champion UConn. But Connecticut is having a down season, and the Cougars should be able to close out with a win.