After being deprived of the joyous event that is March Madness last season as Covid-19 took hold, the Texas Longhorns are set for the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday evening. On paper, Shaka Smart’s team has the pieces to make a push in the Big Dance, but first, they’ll be tasked with navigating the Big 12 tournament, beginning with a Texas Tech team that swept the Horns this season.
The BON staff got together to discuss what Texas needs to do to enjoy some success in the conference tournament and what we still need to see to feel confident about the Longhorns entering the NCAA Tournament.
Texas fell into a bit of a midseason slump, but finished with three straight wins and four in five games. Given the finish, how are you feeling about this team entering the Big 12 tourney?
Wescott: In taking the lead from the players and coaches during this three-game winning streak, there are still areas where the team can improve, but overall, there’s a much higher level of rhythm, coherence, and connectedness for the Longhorns over the last week or so. Shaka Smart talks a lot about playing loose, aggressive, and confident and Matt Coleman spoke after the TCU game about how he saw all of that from this Texas team before the game.
Getting Andrew Jones back on track is a big deal. Jericho Sims showing an improved understanding of how to play high-level defense without fouling and playing with the controlled violence that Smart wants offensively is a big deal, too.
Cameron: The Horns won six of their last eight games, including three straight to end the season. I know that stretch includes TCU (twice), Kansas State, and Iowa State but after COVID-19 disrupted their season, any sort of momentum heading into the postseason is good momentum. Facing Texas Tech is never easy but I feel better about this team now than I did a few weeks ago.
Cody: My feeling is probably still the same overall — this is a Texas team that can beat nearly anyone on any given night, especially after they’re getting a bit back into their pre-covid form and consistency. Jericho Sims playing some of the best basketball of his career is huge for Texas, but for obvious reasons, the draw against Texas Tech isn’t ideal.
Anthony: The midseason COVID break in action halted a lot of Texas’ early momentum in Big 12 play and proved that maybe they aren’t a top 5-10 caliber squad. But with their legs back under them and guards knocking down shots, they’re capable of beating any Big 12 team outside of Baylor.
Currently projected as a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Horns need to at least beat Tech to avoid falling to the 4-line. A 3 seed bodes well for any Regional round (S16/E8) tournament aspirations, as that means they would avoid a challenging 4-13 first round matchup and in all likelihood not have to face a 1 seed in the Sweet 16. A win or two in the Big 12 tournament would be further proof that Texas is built to finally make an NCAA Tournament run under Shaka.
As usual, the Big 12 slate was a gauntlet and the conference tournament will be no different. What must Texas do to earn a spot in the Big 12 Championship game?
Wescott: Play with consistency and poise by continuing to move the ball well and taking good shots on offense and playing with effort and activity on defense while remaining connected through communication. Texas is probably good enough to make the Sweet 16 without a high level of consistency from the three lead guards and the three key frontcourt players, but getting past that point will almost certainly require at least three or four of those players to perform at a high level over the coming games.
Cameron: They’ll have to get through a team they’ve lost to twice, potentially a team they’ve beat twice, and in all likelihood a team that’s only lost once all year. Oof. Plus, Coach Smart is 2-4 in the Big 12 Tournament and has never gotten Texas past the second round. We know Texas is capable of beating everyone in the Big 12 (except maybe Baylor) but they’ve let the lead slip a few times in the 2nd half, including against Texas Tech the first time around. They’ll need to keep their foot on the gas and avoid any 2nd half setbacks to win it all.
Cody: Even though the NCAA Tourney still awaits, Texas needs to adopt that win or go home mentality now, and the guard trio needs to ensure everyone else is up to speed with that. When Texas is peaking, they can be truly elite defensively and deal haymakers offensively, but when things start turning in the other direction, you can almost feel the collapse and the hero ball that comes to the forefront. Avoid that and play close to your best basketball each time out.
Anthony: Starts with beating Texas’ opposing first-round kryptonite of Chris Beard, Mac McClung, and Texas Tech. Let’s face it — Tech basketball has owned Shaka since Beard took over. It’s also fitting that this was supposed to be the quarterfinals matchup in last year’s tournament when Shaka was seamlessly fighting for his job before everything shut down. The more aggressive team will ultimately end up winning this game and probably beat Kansas en route to a Big 12 championship appearance.
Texas is a different team when Jericho Sims and Greg Brown III play well, and guard play is king in March. So, who is the most important player on this team as we enter the conference tourney and ultimately, the NCAA tourney?
Wescott: This is a tough one because I think there might be four reasonable answers here, but I’m going with AJ1. Not just the team’s leading scorer, Andrew Jones is the highest-volume three-point shooter on the team by a significant margin, so he’s the biggest key offensively — when Jones is scoring efficiently, Texas is hard to beat.
Cameron: For me, it’s Matt Coleman. There’s a reason team’s with strong guard play, specifically at point guard, excel in March. Coleman doesn’t need to get you 30 or even 20 points for Texas to win but he’s at his best when he’s creating shots for his teammates and leading by example on defense. He also might be the best clutch-time player on this Longhorns team and I have a feeling there's gonna be a few close games this post-season.
Cody: I’ll go with GB3. You typically know what you’re going to get from the guards, but Brown was brought in as a potential X-factor to take this team over the top — now’s the time to do that. His scoring output in Texas’ wins is more than double his scoring production in the losses and considering four of Texas’ losses are by a single score, his contributions matter a ton. If he’s playing well, that only simplifies things for everyone else around him.
Anthony: Matt Coleman. The team leader, facilitator, and go-to shot creator in the clutch is going to be heavily relied upon when Texas needs big buckets in close tournament games. Sometimes, and more often than not, teams go as far as the play of their point guard in March. If that’s the case for the Longhorns, they’re in good shape with Matt.
Overall, what do you need to see from Texas in the coming days to feel confident entering the NCAA Tournament?
Wescott: Smart always starts with defense, so I’ll start there, too — Texas needs to continue to work to play with high-level effort on every possession defensively. There have been too many lapses since the strong stretch of play to open the season got derailed in mid-January. After that, it’s about consistency from the lead guards. For Jones, that means scoring. For Coleman and Ramey, it’s about leadership and taking care of the basketball.
Cameron: A win against Tech in the first round would be a big boost in my confidence and theirs, especially after getting swept by Chris Beard this season. But I don’t think Texas has to win the Big 12 tournament in order to make a deep run in March. There’s no better way to prepare for the NCAA Tournament than potentially facing Texas Tech, Kansas, and Baylor.
Cody: Without oversimplifying it, I just want to see Texas play some semblance of its best basketball in the Big 12 tourney. We know of the issues that have plagued this team at times, but we’ve also seen how much of a force this team can be before covid impacted them. Texas has all the pieces and ingredients to be successful — I just want to see them put that together again and win a couple more conference games.
Anthony: As Wescott touched on, high-level energy and effort on the defensive end is where it starts. Texas is at their best when half-court defense leads to offense and stops lead to quick buckets in-transition. Too much settling and reliance on three-point shooting could be the downfall for the Longhorns. They can’t live and die by the three or they’ll be bounced early if they shoot poorly from deep. Guards have to consistently attack over the course of a 40-minute game.
Who’s your pick to win the Big 12 Tournament?
Wescott: Baylor might be the best team in the country — picking the Bears isn’t difficult.
Cameron: There’s only one correct answer and it’s the team that’s my pick to win it all this year. The Baylor Bears.
Cody: I just don’t see anyone beating Baylor. The Bears are just too much right now.
Anthony: Baylor over the winner of Texas/Tech in the championship game.