OKLAHOMA CITY — The Texas freshmen just completed the longest regular season of their lives.
And if the team has its way, there’s more to come.
One luxury to being a freshman on a pretty good basketball team: You can pick your spots while making the transition from high school to college.
At several points of the year, Eric Davis, Kerwin Roach and Tevin Mack have earned game honors on the rare nights when one of the more experienced hands didn’t.
They have also hit a wall they didn’t encounter in their prep careers.
“There were times after games when I just couldn’t wait to go home and go to sleep,” Roach said.
That was the regular season. The stakes just got a lot bigger, and while Texas enters the NCAA Tournament as a touchdown favorite over their Missouri Valley opponent, it wouldn’t be smart to call this West Region matchup a slam dunk for the Bevos.
Big man Cam Ridley is far from 100 percent with that foot. He practiced sparingly during Thursday’s shootaround and may have gotten more work in earlier in the day.
Floor leader Isaiah Taylor went all out as usual, but was favoring his sore heel at times. While Ridley’s workload is to be determined, you can best believe Taylor is preparing to play 40 minutes if need be. He has played through gritted teeth for weeks now and doesn’t plan on deviating from his plan.
Add to that, senior Javan Felix has scored only five points in his last two games.
I expect the Horns to beat the Panthers, but future advancement in this dance can only come if one of these babies comes of age in the postseason. In other words, there are a couple of slots available in the playmaking department over the next game or two. Taylor and Felix have done their best to guide the young’uns along since they went through the same struggles as freshmen.
“This time of the season of the season is a real grind, and they’re not used to it,” Felix said. “It’s more mental than anything. You have to find a way to battle through it and not worry about how you think your body feels.”
We’ve seen glimpses of great play from the frosh this season, with Davis performing better in the early part of the Big 12 slate and Roach flashing more over the last month. Most high school players hung up their sneaks a month ago, so the grind of a college season is probably more mental than physical.
Smart has done a really nice job of picking and choosing when to give his freshmen the ball at different parts of the season. Davis’ five first-half 3-pointers helped withstand Buddy Hield’s first-half assault at the Erwin Center and the Horns roared to life in the second half for the win. Roach emerged at the end of the regular season with three double-digit performances in the last four games. Mack had three of the four best scoring performances by a freshman.
When told Sunday that Davis had said he’d been operating on adrenaline to overcome the soreness that comes with playing more games than he ever has, coach Shaka Smart gave an answer befitting a coach who has taken a team through a long regular season and into a Final Four: “He needs to toughen up.”
Sounds as if Davis took those words to heart.
“I think we’re holding up pretty good,” he said. “Being in the NCAA Tournament gets you hyped and gives you more energy. This is the time of the year when you play your best basketball, so as far as being fatigued or anything like that, that’s not even a factor at this point.”
The NCAAs are about experienced players stepping up in clutch month but also about teams advancing thanks to step-ups from unexpected sources.
Stars are born in this tournament.
And yes, some are actually freshmen.