In an echo of how the 2022-23 season has gone for the No. 2-seed Texas Longhorns, interim head coach Rodney Terry’s team will have to earn a trip to the Elite Eight the hard way by beating the No. 3-seed Xavier Musketeers on Friday in Kansas City in the Sweet 16 — it’s one of only two chalk matchups in the NCAA Tournament’s third round.
But after overcoming the suspension and then termination of former head coach Chris Beard early in the season and finishing second after the rugged Big 12 regular season and having to beat No. 1-seed Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, nothing has come easily for Texas this year. They’ve earned every single accomplishment, including surviving a difficult second-round matchup against No. 10-seed Penn State, which entered the game having won nine of its previous 11 games, a stretch that featured an unlikely run to the Big Ten Tournament championship.
A 10-0 run late in that game highlighted the team’s resolve after going down by three points, the biggest lead for the Nittany Lions in that contest. In a developing trend, it was forward Dylan Disu who responded, hitting a layup on a play designed for him before going on to score eight of the next 10 points for the Longhorns, who ended the game making their final six field-goal attempts and getting clutch free throws from guards Marcus Carr and Sir’Jabari Rice to secure the win. Disu finished with a season-high 24 points by hitting 14 field goals, the school’s single-game NCAA Tournament record.
“I feel really confident right now,” Disu said. “I think it comes from the encouragement of Coach Terry and my teammates. They’re telling me to continue to do what I’m doing for a couple weeks now, and they believe in me.”
After the game, Terry shared what he’d told his team in that crucial timeout with 4:48 remaining.
“I just said, ‘Hey guys, you know what? We’ve been here before. There’s nothing we haven’t faced this year. We played in the toughest league in the country. Let’s go out right now, we’ve got to put it on our defense right now. We’ve done it all year long. We’ve got to get a stop, score, and put some stops together here and try and finish this game out.’ And I thought I guys did that when I did that at a very high level,” Terry said.
Penn State missed its next five shots against a Texas defense that has been elite down the stretch, ranking No. 2 nationally in adjusted efficiency over the last 10 games, according to BartTorvik.com. Against one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams, the Longhorns held the Nittany Lions to 8-of-26 shooting from three (28.6 percent) and to just six assists on 25 made baskets.
Like the previous two Texas opponents, Xavier posts an elite offense, ranking No. 8 in adjusted efficiency and No. 10 in effective field-goal percentage while 38.9 percent from beyond the arc and 54.1 percent from inside of it. Four starters score in double digits for the Musketeers, led by guard Souley Boom, who averages 16.5 points per game and shoots 40.8 percent from three after playing two seasons under Terry at UTEP. On the perimeter, guard Adam Kunkel is also a dangerous shooter at 40.9 percent from distance. Inside, Xavier is much more formidable than undersized Penn State with the presence of 7’0 forward Jack Nunge, who scores 14.1 points per game and can stretch the court, hitting threes at a 40.2-percent clip.
Xavier can get out in transition, averaging 11.3 points per game on fast breaks and ranking No. 30 in adjusted tempo, but what makes the Musketeers particularly dangerous is their ball movement — head coach Sean Miller’s team leads the nation with 19.2 assists per game and rankings No. 6 in assist rate at 64.1 percent. And although Xavier only ranks 100th in turnover rate, their assist-to-turnover ratio is ninth nationally.
So the Texas defensive gameplan may once again rely on forcing one-on-one plays by Xavier with limited help defense to avoid giving up open looks from three. Against Penn State, that task was made easier by the heavy reliance of the Nittany Lions on guard Jalen Pickett, through whom much of the offense ran. But Xavier is much more balanced, with Boum and guard Colby Jones both averaging over four assists per game and Kunkel adding three of his own per contest.
No matter how the Horns structure their defensive gameplan, the execution in the tournament suggests that this veteran Texas team is capable of carrying it out.
Where the Longhorns have a distinct advantage is in the matchup of the Texas offense against the Xavier defense, which ranks No. 73 nationally. However, like the Horns, the Musketeers have stepped up their intensity over the last 10 games to push into the top 50 over that stretch. Xavier struggles to force turnovers and allows opponents to shoot 35.5 percent from three, but is capable of crashing the defensive glass and avoiding sending opponents to the free-throw line.
Of course, to take advantage of the questionable three-point defense of the Musketeers, the Longhorns will have to shoot more like they did in the first round than in the second round. Against Colgate, Texas hit 13-of-23 three-pointers, including 7-of-10 shooting by Rice, before hitting only 1-of-11 three-point attempts in the second round.
But there are also other areas of this team that have set them apart when viewing them against their opponents and against previous Texas teams.
“There’s a calmness, there’s a poise about this team to where they have a will to not lose — they’ll find a way. And it’s a very, very connected group. They help one another, they play for each other, and they’ve been incredibly unselfish all year long. I’m just so proud of this group from start to finish this year and everything they’ve endured and have had to go through. These guys, they’ve been amazing,” Terry said.
And those qualities may be enough to push the Longhorns into the program’s first Elite Eight appearance since 2008.
How to watch
Time: 8:59 p.m. Central