KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Funny how time flies. Two years ago, Texas and Texas Tech players were warming up for their Big 12 Tournament debut and, less than an hour before tipoff, everyone was ordered off the court.
The 2020 tournament and the season was abruptly canceled because of COVID-19.
Then last year, the Longhorns came back to Kansas City and actually won their first Big 12 Tournament championship. Most fans watched one of coach Shaka Smart’s biggest moments at Texas on TV. They were either too scared to travel or too fed up with the requirements once you got there.
Now, all restrictions have been lifted. Kansas City is open. The Big 12 Tournament is a full go. There’s a noticeable buzz around the Power and Light District, and fans are back full throttle. A half-foot of snow is predicted to blanket this town overnight, but who cares?
Bring on March Madness.
“Our deal is can we play our best when it matters most?” Texas coach Chris Beard said Wednesday after a quick shootaround inside T-Mobile Center. “Easy to sit around here on this flush carpet and talk about it, a little more difficult to go out there and do it against some of the best teams in the country, starting tomorrow morning, TCU, coach (Jamie) Dixon.
“The teams that play their best in March make runs and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
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No. 22 Texas (21-10, 10-8 Big 12) opens the postseason as the Big 12’s No. 4 seed and will face No. 5 seed TCU (19-11, 8-10) at T-Mobile Center. The Longhorns swept both games during the regular season and have won seven straight in the series.
Beard was hired away from Texas Tech to replace Smart for one reason — to help Texas win in March. The Horns haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2014.
This season, Beard essentially built an entire team from scratch through the transfer portal. Only four players returned from last season. And Beard turned up the internal heat, sometimes to almost unbearable levels.
Texas goes into the postseason with the league’s best defense (59.5 points allowed per game). Yet, the Horns don’t have a single player good enough to be named to the Big 12’s all-defensive team.
Texas guard Courtney Ramey smothered Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji, the Big 12 player of the year, but he’s not good enough for the all-defense team? Go figure.
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The Horns need their defense because they’re a group of inconsistent shooters (44.3%) and are even more unpredictable from 3-point range (32.2%). If they can’t get downhill, force the action inside the paint, draw contact and get to the free-throw line, it’s typically a hard slog.
Beard thinks Texas, one of the older teams in college basketball, is ready for the challenge.
“I believe in these guys. I really do,” Beard said after Saturday’s regular-season finale at Kansas. “It’s been a challenging season because it’s the first year and it’s tough. Relationships are being formed while we’re playing in the toughest conferences in the country.
“But these guys have given us everything to this point,” he added. “And now it’s fun time, it’s winning time, it’s time to play in March. I’m looking forward to it. I think we’re going to be a factor in Kansas City. I think we’re going to be a factor in the NCAA Tournament.”
Texas didn’t exactly finish the regular season in idyllic fashion. UT made just four of 23 3-point shots in a 68-61 loss to No. 3 Baylor. Then, the Horns missed 14 of their last 15 shots in Saturday’s 70-63 overtime loss to the Jayhawks.
Both games were winnable; Texas was right there. For example, in the Kansas game, neither team had more than a six-point advantage until the last nine seconds — when the Jayhawks hit two free throws to ice it. It was a two-possession game for almost 85 minutes inside historic Allen Fieldhouse.
“I’m just proud of how we all fought,” Ramey said afterward. “Kansas is a good team. And we’re right there with them. So that shows a lot about us. And our goal now is to go beat TCU and put this loss behind us.”
The Horns had little problem with the Frogs in Fort Worth. A rowdy student section greeted the visitors with chants that cannot be reprinted here. The crowd of 8,412 was one of the biggest ever to come watch a TCU home game.
Texas hit seven 3-pointers, ran up a 24-point lead and cruised to a 73-50 win. “It’s embarrassing,” TCU guard Mike Miles said afterward on Jan. 25. “We got our you-know-what kicked.”
Said Dixon: “I haven’t had many losses like this. This is bad.”
Fast forward to Feb. 23. Texas turned up the physicality in the second half, hit 17 of 18 free throws after the break and registered a 75-66 win. “I guess the first thing that stands out when you get outscored at the free-throw line by 16, that pretty much defines it,” Dixon said afterward.
Both Texas and TCU are headed to NCAA Tournament berths. They’re simply playing for a better seeding. The Horns are hoping to avoid landing as a No. 5 seed and playing whatever plucky upstart gets seeded 12th. The Frogs might be on that No. 8 or No. 9 seed line, based on current projections.
Thursday’s winner advances to the Big 12 semifinals where a possible rematch with Kansas looms. That’s assuming Kansas can get past the West Virginia-Kansas State winner. In this league, assume nothing.
At least things are back to normal in Kansas City.
Order the Z-Man sandwich at Joe’s Barbeque. If the fried chicken and mashed potatoes at Stroud’s don’t bust your waistline, the cinnamon rolls will. There are plenty of places to eat, drink and be merry outside T-Mobile Arena, too.
Texas wants to hang around for a while, make a full weekend out of it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism