KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fears over COVID-19 rattled college administrators this week. But at least things were somewhat normal Wednesday inside the Sprint Center.
Music blared as Texas Tech went through a 45-minute shoot-around. Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, The Notorious B.I.G. and, of course, “One Shining Moment” all made Red Raiders coach Chris Beard’s arena playlist. The Luther Vandross version, obviously.
Then, Texas took the floor for 45 minutes and, true to form, lost another player to injury. Brock Cunningham rolled his ankle and had to be helped off.
To a layman, everything looked normal at the Big 12 tournament. The Phillips 66-branded hand wipes were a nice touch, though.
Neither side would acknowledge whether Thursday’s Big 12 quarterfinal matchup is a NCAA Tournament elimination game, as some believe. Safe to say, the winner will feel much better about things than the loser.
“We’re not really focused on the NCAA,” Texas guard Courtney Ramey said. “Of course, we want to make it. But Texas Tech is in the Big 12 tournament. We’re in the Big 12 tournament. So we just want to think about that.”
His teammate, Matt Coleman III, then muttered under his breath, “Good answer.”
Texas coach Shaka Smart said he’s talked about the importance of the game with the Horns.
“My opinion is for our team and our guys to focus on everything we can control,” Smart said. “It’s not like if we write that on our whiteboard, all of a sudden our guys will play harder than if we don’t.”
The fourth-seeded Longhorns (19-12, 9-9 Big 12) probably need it more than the fifth-seeded Red Raiders (18-13, 9-9). Texas ranks 69th in the NCAA’s NET rankings while Tech is 22nd.
Texas appears in only 50 bracket projections out of the 150 tracked by Bracketmatrix.com. Texas Tech appears in 145 out of 150.
“I can only speak for us,” Beard said. “We’re right where our feet our right now. We’ve been talking about this all year, and we understand it’ll take three games to win the trophy.”
All the interviews on Wednesday sounded routine, and the Q&A was all on point. But players sat on an elevated stage while reporters were confined to their seats. A barrier was erected to separate the two. Locker rooms were closed to reporters, a first at this event.
People were giving each other elbow and fist bumps instead of handshakes. There were lots of awkward greetings in the hotel, the arena, everywhere.
Such is life at the moment since the coronavirus outbreak that is forcing states to take drastic measures. As of Wednesday, the Big 12 still planned to allow fans to attend the tournament.
Tech’s Davide Moretti is from Bologna, Italy, and his entire home country is currently on lockdown. The junior guard has been in touch with his family, and Beard said, “He’ll be ready to play.”
“Davide carries himself like a professional,” Tech senior TJ Holyfield said. “He’s handled himself very well. But we’re always supporting him, we’re always asking him how things are back home. We know how serious the situation is. So we’re supporting him as best we can.”
Real life is coming to a complete stand-still, but the games continue.
Thus, the Horns and Red Raiders have no choice but to steady themselves for a battle at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. The two teams split the regular-season series. Tech won by five in Austin; Texas won by 10 in Lubbock.
“I think both of those games were worth the price of admission,” Beard said.
The Horns lost four players to injury this season but still pieced together a five-game winning streak down the stretch. That came to a screeching halt last Saturday with a 22-point blowout loss to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale.
The Cowboys shot 66% overall and were likely to beat anybody that day. But guard Andrew Jones called it a “humbling experience” and said the Horns came out “half-stepping.”
“We didn’t own the challenge or step up and play in attack mode,” Jones said.
If anything, it was a grim reminder how little margin for error Texas has. If the Horns aren’t aggressive, it’ll be a hard slog. If they come out and battle for everything, like they did in Lubbock, they’ve got a chance.
“Certainly being tougher minded, being more aggressive, going after the basketball, those are all really key elements,” Smart said.
Coleman said his teammates must recapture the mentality they had during the winning streak.
“Our identity is defense. Lead with our D,” Coleman said. “Just give each other energy, juice. Just lose ourselves in the moment, if that’s a possession, the first four minutes of the game or the last four minutes of the game. Focus on what’s in front of you. But all-out on defense.”
As for this being an NCAA play-in game, Smart said, “It may be or it may not.”
Probably wise to wash your hands and act like it is.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.