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Chris Beard and No. 6 seed Texas try to end NCAA Tournament struggles

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Beard arrived in Austin with superlative NCAA Tournament credentials, but there are concerning signs heading into March Madness.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

A Monday night program.

Over the last year, Texas Longhorns head coach Chris Beard has talked extensively about his expectation that the Longhorns will compete for and win national titles, making it to the national title game held every year on a Monday night.

But making it past the first round as a No. 6 seed against the No. 11 seed Virginia Tech Hokies will be a challenge for the Longhorns, with analytics and betting odds predicting a close game.

Beard is 10-4 in the NCAA Tournament and has never lost in the opening round with the highlight coming in 2018-19 when Texas Tech went on a magical March Madness run, winning by 15 points against No. 14 seed Northern Kentucky, 20 points against No. 6 seed Buffalo, and 20 points against No. 2 seed Michigan before beating No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Elite Eight and No. 2 seed Michigan State in the Final Four before losing in overtime against Virginia as the Cavaliers claimed the national title.

That run, like Shaka Smart’s 2011 Final Four run at VCU, is one of the biggest reasons why Beard is back home in Austin, but he has plenty to prove in burnt orange and white after repeatedly suggesting that this Texas team is one of the best in the country.

“If you’re going to win games this month and if you’re going to advance in this tournament and the next tournament, you’ve got to play your best,” Beard said in Kansas City before the Big 12 Tournament. “We’ve played some good basketball this year. I think we’re one of the best teams in the country. But we’ve yet to play a full 40. I think in this tournament, if we’re going to get to the championship game, we’re going to have to play a full 40.”

The Longhorns did not play a complete game in the quarterfinals against the Horned Frogs, blowing a 20-point lead as TCU pushed Texas around for much of the game. The loss dropped Beard to 1-5 in the Big 12 Tournament and left him frustrated and trashing his players after the defeat.

“I hate to lose more than I like to win, and I’ve got some guys that I’m trying to teach that to,” Beard said. “I thought one team today hated to lose it more. Our guys are out there trying to win the game — they don’t really understand how you get here. I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that think they have the answers, but they really don’t.”

Beyond the Monday night appearance, Beard earned the job at Texas by doing two things extremely well from a program-wide perspective — bring in transfers and then integrate them into his program culture.

Perhaps that culture-building is still a work in progress on the Forty Acres, but Beard blaming his players for a postseason loss when he brought in eight transfers suggests he failed to bring in the right players or failed to effectively build a winning culture. Maybe both. Departures by former Texas Tech signee Jaylon Tyson UMass transfer Tre Mitchell suggest a combination of both as Beard further cemented his reputation as a head coach who regularly runs off talented players.

Beard provided blunt assessments of other warning signs this Longhorns team may not be able to win its first game in the NCAA Tournament since 2014 — an inability to be accountable on the court and a lack of toughness.

“We all gotta do what we say we’re going to do,” Beard said. “Some of our inabilities this year to play our best, are like that. ‘Guys, if we say we’re going to block out, we probably need to block out.’ That’s been one of our obstacles we’ve had to overcome this year, with a veteran team. Kind of crazy we’re even talking about this, but that’s kind of been one of our issues — not doing what we say we’re going to do.

“And I think that culminated in kind of an eye-opening experience for some of our players. We bounced back pretty quickly. That’s all you can do. When you hear your name on Selection Sunday, it’s time to go.”

Whether it’s the physical toughness to avoid getting pushed around like Texas has in games like the Big 12 Tournament loss to TCU or the mental toughness to make the right plays in winning time, the Horns have struggled in those areas late in the season, finishing with three straight losses and defeats in five of the last eight games.

“I haven’t questioned a lot about these guys. But I think the verdict is still out on the toughness deal. I tell the guys all the time — it’s not critical, it’s the truth. I want to see it when the lights are on,” Beard said. “I believe in these guys, I think they’ve got it in them, but toughness is a choice — there’s a lot of tough people who choose to be tough every day. So I don’t think it’s a question of if we’re capable of bringing that kind of toughness, it’s more a question of if we’re willing to do it, in my opinion.”

Inconsistency from Beard’s best players have been a concern, too.

A month ago, senior guard Andrew Jones was playing the best basketball of his career, scoring 20 or more points in three consecutive games for the first time. Since then, he’s 4-of-27 from three-point range (14.8 percent) and has failed to score in double digits in three of four games.

Senior forward Timmy Allen played well in games against Gonzaga and the home win over Kansas, but he’s also struggled against opponents with length and athleticism going 3-of-9 shooting in both games against Baylor and struggling mightily in the road loss to the Jayhawks, making only 2-of-15 shots with three turnovers. Against Texas Tech, he went 2-of-6 shooting in both games. Since Big 12 play started, Allen has failed to reach double digits in eight games. Texas only won three of those contests, including the conference opener against a West Virginia team depleted by COVID-19 protocols.

Neither has been more inconsistent than senior guard Marcus Carr, the Minnesota transfer who arrived at Texas one of the top available players in the NCAA transfer. An inefficient, high-volume scorer last season for a bad Gophers team, Carr averaged 19.4 points per game and only had three games in which he didn’t reach double figures. This year, Carr has been up and down — his scoring average is a little more than half of what it was last season and he has seven games scoring 10 points or less since Big 12 play began, of which the Longhorns have only won two, and 13 games overall. Carr’s worst performance came at home against Texas Tech, a game that featured the Toronto native missing all six of his shot attempts from the field and failing to get to the free-throw line as he went scoreless.

To make it past the opening game, much less make a run in the tournament, the Longhorns need strong performances from at least two of those three players.

For a defense-first team that enters the NCAA Tournament at No. 13 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric, Beard is focused on his team defending well against a high-level offensive opponent in Virginia Tech.

“Concerns with our opponent, Virginia Tech, all sorts of them. I haven’t slept in four days. I would argue that this is one of the best offensive teams in the tournament, one of the best teams in the tournament. Coach does a great job. They’re really difficult to defend. They’ve got five guys out there that are a threat,” Beard said this week.

“Obviously the three-point shot’s a weapon, dribble penetration’s a weapon, and they can throw the ball inside and play through the post. They’ve got really good players. They’ve got an experienced team. Many of these guys played together last year in the NCA Tournament, a great, first-round game against Florida. Of course, Storm [Murphy] has had some success at Wofford and is now picking up where he left off on the biggest stage at Virginia Tech.”

Texas tips off against Virginia Tech at approximately 3:30 p.m. Central on Friday on TBS.