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The NIT isn’t where Texas wants to be.
Playing in the other postseason tournament is not a positive step in the program’s direction. Winning the NIT would be a small positive as it would require a five-game winning streak, but it’s not the achievement the program or the fans want.
Texas’ three NIT games against South Dakota State, Xavier, and Colorado have been a positive in that younger players received more action and responsibility. Two of these younger players that gained valuable experience include Kamaka Hepa and Gerald Liddell.
“It’s just a great thing for them to get minutes and see their hard work pay off,” Courtney Ramey said after Wednesday’s game. “A lot of people might ask why doesn’t Gerald play or why doesn’t Kamaka play? They just kept battling, kept battling, and when their opportunity was called, they came up big for us and have given us key minutes.”
Liddell and Hepa were highly touted out of high school, with both carrying a composite top 60 ranking. However, only Hepa received real playing time in the first few months of the season and even he was limited to about 10 minutes per game. Liddell, the second highest-rated player in the class, could barely crack the lineup.
In the NIT, both had responsibilities added to their plate. Hepa’s minutes have all been meaningful while Liddell was able to set multiple career bests against Colorado in a season-high 17 minutes.
After the Longhorns defeated the Buffaloes on Wednesday, Smart was asked about Liddell’s development over the course of the year. He noted how much of a change going from high school to college basketball was for the San Antonio product.
“Until he got here he never really was forced to play hard,” Smart said. “If you’ve never really played hard, then once you go and you play hard for five minutes, your body is like ‘what is this?’ He’s still learning how to play for extended periods, and I’m talking about in practice.”
Smart praised Liddell for his defense against Colorado. He also noted Liddell’s effort, saying “he’s made major strides in that area.”
Liddell has tried to bring it every game.
“Coach is just telling me every time you step out there, just go as hard as you can,” Liddell said. “Control what you can control like rebounds and fight on every possession. That’s what I try to do.”
His teammates noticed, too.
“I really like what I’ve seen from Gerald,” Kerwin Roach said. “He’s been crashing the offensive glass really hard and gets one or two a game I feel like. Even today, he hit a three. That was his first three here. Little things like that keeps everybody’s energy high, spirit high, and makes you want to root for each other.”
Unlike Liddell, Hepa saw more consistent minutes in his freshman season. He’s averaged just over 10 minutes per game in 27 games, and played in all three NIT games.
With more minutes comes more opportunities for both success and failure. Hepa said Smart has emphasized his belief both can contribute in Texas’ consolation postseason run.
“I would say he really didn’t put any pressure on us, especially us two being freshmen,” Hepa said. “I feel like he put a lot of trust in us rather than pressure. We were out there more comfortable rather than playing with having a fear of getting taken out. We were just out there hooping, and I feel like that gives us a different confidence that helps the team.”
Liddell repeated the emphasis on being ready at all times.
“We know at any point in the game, we can get in,” Liddell said. “We just have to go in there and try to make the biggest impact we can and try to do our best out there.”
Both will need to be ready Tuesday against TCU, a team the Longhorns have not defeated this season. Smart doesn’t expect Jaxson Hayes to play (knee), but two other members of the Longhorns’ 2018 class should see some minutes in Madison Square Garden.
“He puts a lot of trust in us, so we’re out there comfortable,” Liddell said of Smart. “It feels good.”