The most challenging and unusual basketball season in the last century comes full circle on Thursday as the No. 13 Texas Longhorns take on the No. 20 Texas Tech Red Raiders at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City on Thursday at approximately 8:30 p.m. Central on ESPN or ESPN2.
Almost a year ago, the Longhorns were preparing to face off against the Red Raiders in the Big 12 Tournament when they were pulled off the court with the tournament’s cancellation. On the flight back to Austin, Texas found out that the NCAA Tournament was canceled, too.
“During that time, I was pretty mad because I wanted to play. I had family there, so I wanted to perform for them,” Texas junior guard Courtney Ramey said on Monday. “But in the grand scheme of things, I understood why they pulled us off the court. And we have a teammate of our own who can be at risk, so I had to think about him as well.”
After the missed opportunity last season, Ramey hasn’t appeared in the NCAA Tournament yet at Texas. The emotional, hypercompetitive guard is also an avatar for the program’s recent struggles against Texas Tech. Of course, it’s not Ramey’s fault that the Longhorns have almost entirely failed to overcome the Red Raiders in the last three seasons, but he’s been a part of all of it.
So, entering Thursday’s game against Texas Tech, head coach Shaka Smart’s team finds itself in a position that is both familiar and unfamiliar after the Red Raiders won both games during the regular season. Over the last seven games against head coach Chris Beard’s Red Raiders, the Longhorns have dropped six of them — the late-season win in Lubbock last year in the midst of the team’s five-game winning streak is the only victory over that span. But this is also the best Texas team in the last decade with advantages against Texas Tech in playmaking at the guard position and length and athleticism in the frontcourt.
With six wins in the last eight games, Smart’s team is attempting to consolidate momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament with a strong performance in Kansas City as the bracket opens up. Over the three road wins last week, the Longhorns registered a plus-10.0 scoring margin (75.3-65.3) thanks to 51.3-percent shooting from the floor, including 45.9 percent from three-point range (28-61), and had seven players averaging more than 8.0 ppg during the stretch.
By beating TCU on Sunday, Texas avoided No. 1 Baylor until a potential championship game matchup and landed on the same side of the bracket as No. 2 Kansas, which will play without rapidly-improving big David McCormack.
All of those considerations take a back seat to trying to beat Beard’s team, however, with senior point guard Matt Coleman believing the game will come down to defense for the Longhorns.
“I think the better defensive team wins,” Colemans said on Monday. “Like, they are high on game deflections, keeping the ball on the side, out of the paint. We’re big on deflections, just being a gritty defensive team. I just think the better defensive team wins.”
In that regard, Texas needed the three days off following four games in eight days to finish the season — Smart said that Coleman was completely gassed at halftime against TCU, but made a number of key plays in the second half as Texas worked to maintain or expand the lead.
At the end of any long season, players simply have to dig a little bit deeper to find some extra energy.
“I can talk for a lot of people that a lot of people aren’t 100 percent right now just the way our bodies are feeling,” Coleman said on Monday. “But I think that’s where your mental game has to be stronger than ever right now going into March. You’ve just got to play little mind games with yourself, that it’s your will, that you’re feeling 100 percent, you have enough to bring to the table night in, night out.”
Like Texas, Texas Tech also enters the game having played four times in eight days with a matching 3-1 record as the Longhorns look to avoid a season sweep by the Red Raiders. KenPom.com gives Texas a 48-percent win probability with a projected score of 69-68.
The Longhorns have not made the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament since 2014.