There are two types of teams in the NIT, a tournament created the year before the NCAA’s own postseason and considered more prestigious for years — the teams that want to make the most of the opportunity and the teams that see it as evidence of the season’s failure and therefore not worthwhile.
Compounding regular season failures with an NIT flameout can end coaching tenures. In the SEC, Arkansas fired Mike Anderson after eight years due to a second round loss, while Avery Johnson and Alabama “mutually parted ways” after four seasons when the No. 1 seed lost to Norfolk State in the first round.
Consider Texas the former type of team despite a massively disappointing 16-16 regular season that featured five losses in the final six games. Now, with three wins to reach the semifinals in New York City at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, the Longhorns have erased as much of that disappointment as this tournament allows while responding to the challenge in front of them.
“I think we’ve just been gelling, to be honest,” senior forward Dylen Osetkowski said last week. “You know, guys have kind of just thrown out everything from the season — the grind, the fatigue, whatever, just kind of put everything aside. Personal opinions, emotions, it’s winning and moving on. We’ve had the mindset since we got in it... to try to go win the whole thing.”
This leg of the journey began back on Selection Sunday, when the Longhorns knew there was little chance of accomplishing the season’s goal of making the NCAA Tournament. Texas practiced during the morning, then split up to watch the selection show, with head coach Shaka Smart meeting with the freshmen and the rest of the team left to watch on their own informally in the basketball facility.
Smart’s hope at the time was that the Longhorns could use the opportunity as a springboard, especially for the younger players, an approach requiring maturity to unlock the possible learning experiences. Three wins later, the Texas head coach had the opportunity to reflect on those games at the Erwin Center following the third round win over Colorado.
“It just says that our guys want to keep playing,” Smart said. “It would have been really, really easy to feel sorry for yourself and be bummed out, maybe point fingers even, but our guys have done a good job at practice of coming to work and coming to get better.”
The victory over the Buffaloes provided the Longhorns seniors a chance to make up for a Senior Night in which senior guard Kerwin Roach II didn’t even play — “what a helpless feeling,” Smart said — while Osetkowski had what Smart called one of his worst games of the season. Indeed, Osetkowski only scored nine points on 11 shots and wasn’t particularly good on the glass, as he pulled in a mere two rebounds.
However, that wasn’t the only aspect of that narrative, because the Longhorns will play the Horned Frogs again in the NIT semifinals with a chance to exact revenge on the two losses to Jamie Dixon’s team this season, but especially the Senior Night disaster.
During that game, Texas collapsed after taking a 22-16 lead and allowed TCU guard Desmond Bane to score 34 points on 14-of-20 shooting in what quickly became a blowout in the second half. No one else had more than three baskets for the Horned Frogs — it was basically a one-man effort and the Longhorns never responded to how well Bane was playing, continually failing to mark him in transition or halfcourt sets.
To get to the NIT semifinals after the disappointment of that loss and the subsequent loss to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament, Texas had to demonstrate the pride to value the games in a tournament that now lacks cachet, but also needed the type of poise that wasn’t evident so often this season.
“I think pride is certainly something that our guys have exhibited,” Smart said after the Colorado win. “They could have easily felt sorry for themselves — I don’t think you’ve seen much if any of that over the course of the last three games, but they’ve also played with good poise for the most part.
“Our last two games were obviously closer, you know, and earlier in the year we had some struggles in some close games that could have gone either way, but I thought in these three games our poise was really good and it’s not always going to be the same guy who makes the play, but they did a good helping each other and finishing games.”
Excellent three-point shooting has helped — after struggling early in the season from beyond the arc, and in games like the second TCU contest (4-of-19 shooting from three), Texas has hit 42.2 percent beyond the arc during the NIT. Now at 83 attempts, it isn’t the smallest sample size any more, either.
While that’s certainly heartening for Smart, especially 9-of-17 three-point shooting from freshman guard Courtney Ramey, who is averaging 13.7 points per game in the NIT, the bigger message is about remaining present.
“Just being in the moment and focusing on the opportunity you have in front of you with your teammates, because no matter what happens, you’re never going to be with this specific team again, this exact group of individuals.”
Some of those players have never been to New York City before. Only one has played a game at Madison Square Garden — sophomore guard Matt Coleman, the Oak Hill product. Transfer guard Elijah Mitrou-Long, who led Mount St. Mary’s to the Northeast Conference Tournament championship in 2017, is the only player who has won a postseason tournament in college.
The team arrived in New York on Sunday evening, then grabbed a meal at Carmine’s, the family-style Italian restaurant off Time’s Square. On Monday, they explored the 9/11 Memorial before practicing at the New York Athletics Club just off Central Park.
On Tuesday evening at approximately 8:30 p.m. Central, the Horns will tip off against the Horned Frogs at what is known as the Mecca of basketball with a chance to continue reversing the narrative about this team.
“I think we’ve known all year that our guys have it inside them to be a really good team,” Smart said. “Obviously, this year we’ve really struggled with consistency and I think what we were able to do tonight for the most part was everyone came into the game and played with a clear mind for one thing — just helping Texas win. It sounds simple, but when everyone is of that accord, it goes a long way.”