Some have called it "the battle of the underachievers." We're going to call it "the battle of the teams that don't deserve to advance to the secound round of the NCAA tournament."
On Thursday night, two of the nation's coldest teams -- Texas and Wake Forest -- will meet in New Orleans for a berth in the second round of the tournament (and the right to lose to Kentucky). Though the teams have collectively gone 8-14 since reaching their season high in the AP rankings, one of them will emerge from the first round battle of attrition and advance to the weekend while the losers of Cornell-Temple, Richmond-St. Mary's, UNLV-Northern Iowa, Tennessee-San Diego State and Butler-UTEP will stay at home. It's not so much unfair as it is unfortunate. Neither Wake Forest nor Texas deserved any such favors from the selection committee.
Since hitting No. 1 in the middle of January on the strength of a 17-0 record, Texas has gone 7-9. At multiple times it appeared as if Rick Barnes' squad was on the verge of getting its groove back, but then Texas would get blitzed by Baylor, Kansas, Texas A&M, Baylor (again) or, uh, Baylor (third time wasn't a charm) and be back at square one.
Wake Forest peaked a little later than UT, but crashed just as hard. The Deacs reached No. 23 in the AP poll on Feb. 15 and then proceeded to lose five of its last six games. The final embarrassment came in the ACC tournament when Wake lost by 21 to a Miami team playing without its top scorer.
The parallels between Wake and Texas go back farther than this season. Back in January when Texas hit No. 1 in the AP poll, we cautioned Longhorns fans to curb their enthusiasm. In the previous decade, no team that had ever sat atop the rankings in mid-January had gone on to win the NCAA tournament. In some extreme cases, schools reaching No. 1 in the middle of the first month of conference play had experienced a drastic drop-off later in the season. The 2009 Wake Forest Demon Deacons were our prime example. That squad hit No. 1, eventually fell to a No. 4 seed and was eliminated by Cleveland State in the first round of last year's tourney.
Texas will either mirror that fall Thursday or Wake will end another season with a first round disappointment. Either way, the winner of the game is likely to be less a victor than the better loser.