In Indianapolis, Matt Coleman is still hoping to wake up from the nightmare.
Despondent and sitting with his arms crossed in the post-game press conference, the senior point guard was trying to process what had just happened.
“It just doesn’t feel real,” Coleman said. “I feel like I’m gonna wake up from a bad dream.”
The bad dream was a nightmare performance for Coleman and the No. 3 seed Texas Longhorns, a trendy Final Four pick by some experts, in a 53-52 loss to the No. 14 seed Abilene Christian Wildcats on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Coleman was a key figure in that nightmare, turning the ball over seven times and sitting for most of the first half after two key fouls. His fourth foul was the most crucial, a whistle on an offensive rebound after Texas sophomore forward Kai Jones blocked the driving layup attempt by Abilene Christian’s Damien Daniels.
The foul call that gave Abilene Christian go-ahead free throw attempts pic.twitter.com/6IYgSky50F— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) March 21, 2021
In March, every little thing matters and Coleman wasn’t able to get good positioning against the 6’8, 220-pound Joe Pleasant, hitting Pleasant’s shoulder as the ball arrived.
Among all Abilene Christian players with 10 or more free-throw attempts on the season, Pleasant ranked last on the team at 58.8 percent. The Kansas product didn’t look like a poor free-throw shooter, though, standing on the line for a lengthy period of time after Texas took its final timeout and then calmly draining the first and rattling home the second to win the game with 1.2 seconds remaining.
The free throws by Pleasant negated a huge three-pointer from Texas redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones on a pass from Coleman to take the lead with 15 seconds left. Jones had previously made two free throws with 56 seconds remaining following an Abilene Christian turnover.
It wasn’t enough, though, as the Longhorns failed to play with the level of poise needed in the NCAA Tournament against the frenzied, unique ball-denial defense employed by the Wildcats that mixes the no-first-pass approach formerly used by Brad Underwood in Stillwater and the no-middle defense made famous by Chris Beard in Lubbock.
But as well as Abilene Christian played defensively, that was far from the whole story in Indianapolis during the upset. Of course, Joe Golding’s team was always considered dangerous coming into the game, but the way that it played out to end in a victory for the No. 14 seed was entirely improbable.
According to the Twitter account @StatsbySTATS, Abilene Christian became the first team in NCAA Tournament history to win despite shooting under 30 percent from the field and under 20 percent from the three-point line — the first 40 teams to play so poorly on offense all lost.
How could that possibly happen to a favored Texas team that just won the program’s first Big 12 Tournament title and didn’t lose to a team outside of KenPom.com’s top 40 teams in adjusted efficiency all season?
There were a number of factors.
The single biggest factor was the discrepancy in field-goal attempts — Abilene Christian attempted 27 more shots than Texas, taking nearly 63 percent of all the shots from the field in the game thanks to big advantages on the offensive glass and in creating turnovers.
The Longhorns turned the ball over a season-high 23 times against only 11 turnovers by the Wildcats. Facing a team that leads the nation in turnover percentage and turnover margin, the issues protecting the basketball by Texas were hardly surprising, but the extent of those issues decided the game.
“I thought their aggressiveness really had our guards on our heels for much of the night,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said.
All three lead guards for the Horns experienced significant struggles throughout the game.
Coleman only played 10 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and had some uncharacteristic mistakes, including dribbling the ball off his foot on a baseline drive and simply losing it out of bounds on another. Andrew Jones battled foul trouble in the first half and turned the ball over four times. Junior Courtney Ramey only made one of his seven shot attempts and also had four turnovers.
One sequence was particularly revealing about Ramey’s no good, very bad day — on defense, he took a shoulder to his face, knocking him down and leaving him bloodied, then had a high-arcing jumper rim out.
“I think a lot of it was their defense,” Smart said. “They lead the country in forcing turnovers. They force over 20 a game. We certainly could have done a much better job being sound with the ball, particularly our guards. Between our three guards we had 15. But they deserve a ton of credit for the way they force turnovers.”
Even beyond the final possession for Abilene Christian, the undersized Wildcats had a clear advantage in coming up with offensive rebounds, too, turning 18 of their own misses into 12 second-chance points — nearly 41 percent of their offensive rebounding chances. Texas only managed five offensive rebounds and didn’t score a single second-chance point.
“Yeah, 18 offensive rebounds was a huge, huge difference maker throughout the game and obviously in that last play, if they don’t get the rebound, the foul doesn’t get called, and we wrap up that possession and now we probably win the game,” Smart said.
“I think they played with an aggressiveness on the offensive glass that we didn’t do a good enough job counteracting. There were quite a few that went out of bounds off us so even though they didn’t grab the ball, they still had possession of the ball and they made us pay on some of those.”
Some bad luck for Texas didn’t help, either — Abilene Christian only managed to shoot close to 30 percent because of numerous difficult made shots. Every one of those unlikely baskets helped determine the outcome.
“They made some really, really tough shots,” Smart said. “They banked in a few shots late in the clock and the best teams find a way to get beyond that and I kind of feel like a couple times that had taken the wind out of our sails.”
And that’s at the crux of why the Longhorns lost a game that the offensive results for the Wildcats, even after making those tough shots, overwhelmingly indicated that Texas should have won — a team filled with experienced players simply didn’t display the necessary poise to survive and advance.
“Sometimes it’s games like this you just have to find a way to come away with a win and guys kind of settle in and start to find their legs more,” Smart said. “This has been a unique few weeks for us, it’s been a unique couple days I think for everybody here and obviously we didn’t play our best tonight. So it’s extremely disappointing.”
Now the program faces a crossroads — with $7.1 million and two years left on Smart’s contract, athletics director Chris Del Conte needs to make a decision about whether to retain Smart, give him an extension to provide some certainty for all the recruits that Texas needs to land with a high level of turnover expected on the current roster, or terminate the head coach who hasn’t been able to win a game in the NCAA Tournament in six years.
“He can’t win a game — he’s not on the court,” Coleman said. “His guys just didn’t play up to their skill set, what we know we can play at. It’s not on him. I failed him.”
But even if Del Conte agrees with Coleman’s statement, what does it say about Smart that the point guard he started recruiting in eighth grade couldn’t come through for him as a senior in a definitional moment?