Brock Cunningham remembers.
As the only holdover from two years ago, the last time the Texas Longhorns won the Big 12 Tournament before getting upset by the No. 14-seed Abilene Christian Wildcats in the first round, Cunningham had that game at front of mind this week.
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“We won the Big 12 Tournament that year and then thought we couldn’t be touched,” Cunningham said on Wednesday. “And then this year, after winning the Big 12 Tournament that first practice back in Austin, we spoke about the importance of living in the moment — we won the Big 12, we’ll have that the rest of our lives, but we’re moving on to something bigger and trying to catch bigger fish, so just living where our feet are and preparing for the next game.”
The loss to Abilene Christian provided Cunningham with an education on March Madness and the flow and energy of games in which neutral fans often take up the cause of underseeded teams like the Patriot League champions.
Now a No. 2 seed after winning the Big 12 Tournament again, the Longhorns face off against the No. 15-seed Colgate Raiders on Thursday in Des Moines in a game that should look much different than the rugged, defensive slugfest two years ago — the Raiders are one of the best shooting teams in the country, leading the nation from beyond the arc at 40.9 percent and ranking first in effective field-goal percentage.
“They’re the best shooting team in the country, so it’s hard for me to say there’s anybody else like them,” Texas guard Marcus Carr said. “But in terms of preparation, I think our staff has been doing a great job of letting us know what kind of team they are. We’ve been watching a lot of film, and like I said, we respect them. We know they’re a great team, obviously, coming out of their league and definitely respect their ability to shoot the ball. We’re gonna have to adjust our defense to that.”
The extent to which the nation’s No. 11 defense in adjusted efficiency can disrupt Colgate could play a big role in the game — the Raiders rank No. 15 nationally in turnover rate and only give the ball away 10.2 times per game. The Longhorns have turned up the defensive intensity in recent games, however, ranking second nationally over the last 10 contests and forcing turnovers on 22.8 percent of opposing possessions on the season, No. 18 in the country.
Defense has fueled the offense as Texas turned the pace up this season and scored 10.6 points per game on fast breaks. In the open court, the Horns have a chance to let their advantages in size and athleticism tell against the Raiders.
Texas will also have forward Timmy Allen back after the senior missed the Big 12 Tournament with a lower right leg injury. More than just a steady mid-range presence, the team’s third-leading scorer is also a primary playmaker, averaging 3.5 assists per game and finishing second on the team in that category.
“I’m ready to go, no question mark, I’m going full speed,” Allen said on Wednesday.
If Allen may need some time to get into rhythm after playing for the last time 12 days ago, forward Dylan Disu enters the NCAA Tournament in the best form of his Texas career. The Most Outstanding Player in the Big 12 Tournament, Disu averaged a team-best 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds while converting 17-of-23 (.739) shots from the field and 10-of-12 (.833) from the free-throw line in Kansas City.
“He’s a very confident player right now, especially on the offensive end of the floor. All season long, he’s given us incredible rim protection in terms of shot blocking — he’s one of the top shot blockers in this league. He’ll do some dirty work and take some charges as well,” Texas acting head coach Rodney Terry said.
“But over the course of Big 12 play, he’s gotten better and better, and, obviously, having a presence in the paint really creates a lot of scoring opportunities for our guards as well. So, him raising his level of play for us has really taken our team to another level.”
For Texas to make a deep run in the tournament, the Longhorns probably need Carr to take advantage of those scoring opportunities. Over the final six games of the season, Carr was only 7-of-34 shooting from three-point range (20.5 percent) while averaging just 10.8 points per game.
“You can say I had a shooting slump or hit a wall or whatever you want to call it, but at the end of the day, I was really just focused on making sure that we got wins and if my shots aren’t falling, then I’m going to try and be an even better distributor, I’m going to try and affect the game even more on the defensive end. So as well as my teammates, they told me keep shooting, coaches have told me keep shooting, they never lack confidence in me or anything like that.”
Carr did remain effective as a playmaker over that stretch with 24 assists and was particularly effective defensively in the Big 12 Tournament, recording four steals against Oklahoma State and five steals against TCU.
Colgate head coach Matt Langel and his players expressed some concern about their ability to adjust to the intensity, physicality, and speed of the game early, so Texas could open up an early lead if they come out with the level of defensive focus they showed in Kansas City.
But this is also a Raiders team that has played in the last four NCAA Tournaments and stayed competitive in a seven-point loss to the No. 3-seed Badgers last year — they’ll enter the game used to the environment even if they will be at a disadvantage athletically.
So a close game into the second half wouldn’t be a surprise, although BartTorvik.com ultimately gives Texas a win probability of 87 percent with a final score of 81-69.
How to watch
Time: 6:50 p.m. Central
Radio: The Longhorns IMG Radio Network
Livestream: March Madness Live, SlingTV
Odds: Texas is a 13-point favorite, according to DraftKings. Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
Rep the Horns during March Madness with help from Breaking T.