After the first year without an NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament since its debut in 1939, March Madness returns in 2021 to the delight of college basketball fans everywhere. Once the First Four is in the books, the madness will be in full swing starting with the Round of 64 starting on Friday.
The penultimate game of the first round will feature an in-state battle between the Abilene Christian Wildcats and the Texas Longhorns for the first-ever meeting between the two programs. The Wildcats make their second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history — after its first berth in 2019, in which Abilene Christian lost in the opening round — while Texas returns for its first Big Dance appearance since 2018 and seeks its first tournament win since 2015, the Longhorns' final season under Rick Barnes.
East Region: No. 14 Abilene Christian Wildcats (23-4) vs. No. 3 Texas Longhorns (19-7)
Time: Saturday, March 20 at 9:50 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Texas -9
Keys for Abilene Christian
Over the course of the last eight seasons since re-joining the ranks of Division I, Abilene Christian has continued its steady upward climb. After four straight losing seasons between 2013-14 and 2016-17, the Wildcats have posted three consecutive 20-win seasons, with 70 total wins in that span. Its success this season was spurred by its ability to share the ball and to cause havoc on the defensive side, finishing with the best per-game turnover margin (+6.4) in Division I while also posting top-5 marks nationally in steals per game (9.9, 2nd), assists per game (18.2, 5th), and scoring margin per game (+17.1, 5th). That combination was a potent force as Abilene Christian went 14-2 to close the regular season before sweeping both games in the conference tournament.
Senior guard Reggie Miller (no relation to the Hall of Famer) led the Wildcats in assists, steals, and assist-to-turnover ratio, with more than 2.4 assists per turnover this season. Miller also finished second in the Southland and 13th in Division I with 54 steals in the 2020-21 season, with fellow backcourt mate Damien Daniels right on his heels with 52 (3rd in Southland, 22nd in Division I). Despite Abilene Christian's sizable scoring margin, however, the Wildcats only featured three players — Kolton Kohl, Joe Pleasant, and Coryon Mason — who finished in double figures in scoring, as Kohl led the way with 12.3 points per game.
Keys for Texas
Texas began the 2020-21 campaign ranked No. 19 in the preseason Associated Press poll and climbed as high as No. 4 after taking down No. 3 Kansas in Lawrence. Six losses in a 10-game stretch in the back half of the season pushed the Longhorns down to No. 15, however, but they enter the NCAA Tournament ranked ninth in the AP poll on the strength of five straight wins entering the Big Dance. Those six losses all came against Big 12 competition, as Texas thrived in non-conference play to the tune of a 6-1 record by an average margin of victory of 13.6 points per game.
That wave of success can be tied in large part to the experience of this year's team, with Texas returning the entirety of its on-court production from last season's group. That veteran leadership has propelled the Longhorns forward, as Andrew Jones (14.6 ppg), Matt Coleman (13.3 ppg), and Courtney Ramey (12.6 ppg) — a junior, senior, and junior, respectively — comprise the team's top three scorers this season. That trio also leads the team in minutes played, with all three slotting in among the top 20 in the Big 12 as well.
Abilene Christian has certainly outperformed many expectations, as it raced out to a 23-4 record this season on the strength of its potent offense and pesky defense. But when its offensive efficiency is adjusted for opponents, the Wildcats barely crack the top half of Division I. This game shouldn't be as big of a blowout as the seeds might suggest, but Texas' experience and versatility should be enough to push the Longhorns into the second round.
Prediction: Texas 83, Abilene Christian 74
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.