Though not known as a traditional basketball school, the Texas Longhorns have been remarkably consistent in making the NCAA Tournament over the last 30 seasons, appearing 26 times, good for sixth nationally during that stretch.
But after what head coach Shaka Smart called “a season unlike any other” in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Horns securing a No. 10 seed in the South Region, there was a sense of excitement from the team that belied the program’s historic success and put into perspective just how much it had overcome.
So while making the tournament is now a minimum and justified expectation for this program, this group is clearly not taking it for granted.
Some nervous moments but the 'Horns are happy to be back in the tournament pic.twitter.com/kDZQMcoXDM— Sports Night (@Sports_NightTX) March 12, 2018
Matt Coleman described the experience of seeing Texas make the field of 68 as “unbelievable,” while Kerwin Roach II spoke of his excitement in that moment.
After all, this was a Texas team that knocked back and forth between the first four teams with a bye, the first four in, and the first four out in recent weeks. Wins and losses in Big 12 play went back and forth when the ‘Horns even managed to avoid losing multiple games in a row. The result was a record of 8-10 in the nation’s most challenging conference.
Baylor and Oklahoma State narrowly missed bids, though both schools had credible arguments to land at-large bids. For the Bears, Scott Drew’s team boasted a sweep of the ‘Horns, while the Cowboys swept the Jayhawks in the regular season and noted another win against the Red Raiders.
“The number one prevailing emotion — I think I speak for the vast majority of our program — we’re excited about the opportunity,” Smart said. “Those of us who were here last year know what it’s like to not be a part of the Big Dance and not even be close. Today at 5 o’clock, there was some nervousness in the room, we watched the show in here, and the way they revealed it, you guys probably watched it, it’s alphabetical order, so you see this team didn’t make it or that team didn’t make it. And you feel pretty good, but then there was a bunch of teams close to us in alphabetical order and then we saw Texas and the guys went nuts.”
Though Smart understands that the minimum standard is to make it to the tournament, this hasn’t been a normal year.
“With the season that we’ve been through and with the twists and turns that our guys have undergone, we should really be excited about making it and, most importantly, we should really want to do something with it.”
In the end, Texas made the field and will benefit from a fully healthy Mo Bamba, assuming that he doesn’t suffer any setbacks between now and Friday. The star freshman forward declared himself 100-percent healthy on Sunday, with Smart noting that he participated in roughly half of the 75-minute team practice. The limited participation was largely out of caution.
Bamba suffered a left toe injury against Oklahoma in February that cost him the greater part of four games before he returned to play 14 points and score 10 points against Texas Tech last Thursday.
Against a Nevada team that largely features 6’7 players, having the length and athleticism of Bamba back at full health should provide a major boost for Texas.
“The most important thing for us is to be the best Texas that we can be,” Smart said, echoing a consistent sentiment from the Longhorns head coach.
Outside of Bamba’s contribution, that means high-level play from Roach and Dylan Osetkowski, two players who struggled mightily against Texas Tech. With fellow junior guard Eric Davis Jr. out indefinitely, Roach has had to assume a largely role as a primarily playmaker off the bounce. In the last two games, he hasn’t come through, hitting only 4-of-19 shots, including misses on five of his six three-point attempts.
Following Thursday’s loss against Texas Tech, Smart expressed his desire to figure out just what was bothering Roach in the last two games, and perhaps beyond. In the last four games, for instance, he’s committed 15 turnovers.
Another remarkable reality that Smart pointed to in his Sunday press conference? The fact that Roach is the only available player who has competed in the NCAA Tournament on this team since Davis is out and Tulane never made the field during the two seasons Osetkowski was there.
Speaking of the junior forward, he’s equally key as another primary offensive engine for the Longhorns. Against Iowa State on Wednesday, Osetkowski was missing from three-point range early before several post touches helped spark his touch from distance. His 20 points were ultimately a major difference in the game, though he only made 3-of-12 triples.
As has happened at multiple times this season, however, Osetkowski never showed up against Texas Tech, with Smart all but personally calling him out at halftime and in the post-game press conference when the Tulane transfer scored only four points on 2-of-8 shooting.
Managing Osetkowski’s confidence and aggressiveness has been a challenge for Smart this season.
“You can tell by the look on his face,” Smart said. “I tell him all the time: ‘D.O., lead the way, and your play will follow.’ Sometimes when he gets worried about his play, before all the other stuff, he gets a little hesitant. I have to find a way for him to be aggressive, let loose and let his hair down — whatever you want to call it.”
Keep in mind these realities — Osetkowski wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, played at a lower level at Tulane, and was asked to take on a much bigger role while taking a tremendous leap at Texas this season.
No small task.
At times, the limited athleticism that kept Osetkowski from drawing more attention as a prep player limits him, but the narrative arc of his first season in burnt orange indicates that the balance between the need for him to play a huge role in the offense and take good shots has been difficult to achieve.
He’s improved his scoring average, his three-throw percentage, his three-point percentage, and his offensive rating this season. By all of those measurements, Osetkowski got better after spending his transfer season working with the Texas coaches on improving his game.
Now the question is whether he and Roach can help the Longhorns make a March Madness run. And whether Texas can get off to a faster start, which may require sets specifically designed to get the ball inside early or an emphasis on dribble penetration.
In the last two games, the Longhorns struggled to make open shots and failed to get enough good looks around the basket early in the first half. The result was a tremendous amount of pressure on Texas to out-play its opponents over the final 30 minutes.
However, a difficult schedule and an ability to play with some of the top teams in the country give Texas confidence heading into Friday’s game — this team plays tight at times, but it is never intimidated by its opponent. Smart acknowledged that the ‘Horns will have to “settle in and play,” but the players seemed confident.
“I think we can get on a big run. We definitely have the fight and have the skills,” said guard Jacob Young, confidence personified.
Even mild-mannered forward Jericho Sims did his best Jacob Young impression.
“If we play together and play smart, we can do a lot of damage. We’re not done yet.”