As Texas aims to accomplish in basketball what its football and baseball teams have already done, its quest begins close to home.
The Longhorns (27-6) earned the second seed in the Atlanta Regional, and face 15th-seeded Pennsylvania in a Friday night first-round matchup at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Texas has benefited in the past from playing NCAA tournament games not far from its campus. In 2002, Texas also opened in Dallas, winning both of its games there as a No. 6 seed before losing in the regional semifinals. The following year, the Longhorns won two games in San Antonio to reach their first Final Four in 56 years.
“The environment was incredible in San Antonio,” said senior forward Brad Buckman, who was a freshman starter on the 2003 club. “We’re excited to be back in Dallas, and expect to have a fun crowd.”
The football and baseball teams at Texas have already won national championships within the past year. No school has ever held all three NCAA crowns at the same time.
The Longhorns had been in contention for a No. 1 seed before losing three of their final eight games. After dropping road games to unranked foes Oklahoma State and Texas A&M late in the regular season, they lost 80-68 to Kansas in the Big 12 championship game on Sunday, also at the American Airlines Center.
“I wasn’t expecting us to be a No. 1. I learned a long time ago to quit worrying about that,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes, who has led the Longhorns to their eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance. “Regardless of where we’re seeded, we have to go out and win games.”
Texas certainly arrives at the tournament well-tested. The Longhorns went 6-3 in games against ranked opponents, comprising more than one-quarter of their schedule. With victories over Villanova and Memphis this season, they are the only school to defeat two of this tourney’s No. 1 seeds.
The Longhorns also have defeated three of the teams in the Atlanta Regional this season—third-seeded Iowa, sixth-seeded West Virginia and No. 12 seed Texas A&M—but Texas denies this helps its cause.
“The teams are different than when we saw them. They’ll get ready in a different way to play us,” said Big 12 player of the year P.J. Tucker. “I don’t think it’s an advantage or a disadvantage.”
Tucker leads Texas with 16.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. The junior forward has 12 double-doubles this season, with the team going 11-1 in those contests.
The Longhorns also boast the Big 12 defensive player of the year in forward LaMarcus Aldridge. The 6-foot-10 sophomore is averaging 9.0 rebounds and leads Texas with 64 blocked shots. He scores 15.0 points per game and shoots 59 percent from the field.
Texas won its only previous meeting with Penn, 69-61 on Dec. 31, 1963.
The Quakers (20-8) return to the NCAA tournament as Ivy League champions for the second consecutive season and fourth time in the last five years. All five Penn starters played in last year’s tourney, when the Quakers lost 85-65 in the first round to Boston College.
Junior guard Ibrahim Jaaber earned unanimous Ivy League player of the year honors, averaging 18.4 points this season on 53.9 percent shooting. He’s tied for second in the nation with 3.4 steals per game, and his 212 career steals are the most in school history.
Penn finished the regular season with 17 wins in 21 games after a 3-4 start. The Quakers’ last three losses came by a total of six points, including a 60-59 overtime defeat at Princeton in their March 7 finale.
The Quakers went 0-2 against ranked opponents, losing 72-59 at then-No. 1 Duke on Dec. 7, then dropping its next game 62-55 to then-No. 3 Villanova on Dec. 13. Those two contests were Penn’s only games this season against opponents in the NCAA tournament field.
Penn has exited the tournament in the first round in each of its last six appearances. The Quakers have not won a game in the tourney since defeating Nebraska 90-80 in the first round in 1994.
This game’s winner will face No. 7 seed California or 10th-seeded North Carolina State in the second round on Sunday.