Basketball

Back in the NCAA Tournament, Texas applying lessons from its most recent appearance

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In Matt Coleman’s freshman year, Texas lost to Nevada in overtime during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Playing in March Madness was a dream of Coleman’s ever since he realized college basketball was his future path.

His first opportunity left a very bitter taste in his mouth. In 2021, potentially his last shot at making his mark during the tournament, Coleman is looking to do more than simply make an appearance in the field of 68.

“I just want to grow from that,” Coleman said Wednesday. “I want to survive and advance, and move forward, and have the opportunity to just keep winning and compete for something bigger than a first-round exit.”

Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart can mention to his team how they need to be prepared in every round, and how they lost as the higher seed the last time Texas was in the tournament. The message is likely better received by the rest of the team when players like Coleman, Jase Febres, Royce Hamm, and Jericho Sims, who were on the floor in Nashville for the overtime loss, can relate their experience.

There’s a needle to be threaded in that regard. Smart knows, and his players likely know as well, they can’t play out of avoidance of defeat. That phrase made its way into Smart’s brief Wednesday availability several times.

In recent weeks, Texas has not played out of avoidance. They went to Kansas City and achieved something no other Texas team has ever achieved with a Big 12 Tournament title.

Put another way, rather than playing scared, Coleman said the Longhorns will play Abilene Christian as they have tried to play every opponent this season.

“I think 90 percent is about us,” Coleman said. “You respect your opponent. You understand the scouting report and their strengths, but it’s about us. All year, it’s been about us. The game where we’ve been our identity and we’ve been able to trust our coaching staff and respect the scouting report, it’s put us in the best position to win. It’s always going to be about us because we control our destiny.”

The Longhorns have relied on Coleman and fellow guards Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey to be the offensive catalysts for most of the 2020-21 season. High-level guard play is a valuable asset during the NCAA Tournament, and Smart knows he has an advantage with those three players.

Smart emphasized moving the ball consistently against Abilene Christian’s unique defense. He said he expects to see Wildcat defenders close out aggressively on threes and attempt to deny passes more than the teams UT regularly sees in the Big 12. Taking care of the ball against an ACU team that leads the nation in forced turnovers per game (20.3) is a point of major emphasis for his guard trio.

But he also knows his team has not been spurred solely by guard play in recent weeks. Jericho Sims and Kai Jones played some of the best basketball of their careers in the last two weeks, plus Greg Brown remains a physical presence despite some of his mental lapses. Brock Cunningham is involved in this conversation, too, as his showing in Kansas City was crucial to the tournament-winning efforts.

Smart believes his big men can give UT an edge against teams without the same height.

“Those are guys I think can be difference makers for us,” Smart said. “Most teams are going to have pretty steady, pretty impressive guards. I think that we do, but those guys when they’re playing at their best, particularly Jericho, Kai, Greg, Brock in his own way, that allows us to separate from some teams.”

Despite being heavily favored as a three-seed, several major pundits picking the Longhorns to make deep runs, and Texas’ recent victories, Smart will need to exhort his team not to look over the Wildcats at a potential Monday game for a place in the Sweet 16.

“It’s TBD,” Smart almost exclaimed. “Whoever plays better is going to win. Whoever plays harder is going to get the loose ball. Whoever runs faster has an advantage in transition.”

As he said, it is to be determined. But with the lessons learned in the years since Texas’ last appearance in March Madness, and with the team assembled around him, Coleman is confident.

“I like our chances every night no matter who we play against,” Coleman said. “When I look to my left and I look to my right, I love our odds because I have faith in my teammates and myself that we have the ability to put ourselves in the best position to win every night.”

Cover photo courtesy of Texas Basketball