Bohls: Texas bides its time, stays loose before first NCAA tourney game
- Texas-Abilene Christian will be the next-to-last first-round NCAA tourney game to be played.
- The Longhorns have spent time doing everything from jigsaw puzzles to playing badminton.
- Shaka Smart doesn't worry too much about veteran team getting uptight.
Texas doesn’t have its game face on.
No reason to yet.
And that’s a good thing because there’s plenty of time for that. Too much time, perhaps.
No sense in getting all uptight on a Wednesday or Thursday, if at all.
It’ll be hard enough for the Longhorns waiting until almost 9 p.m. Saturday to play their first-round NCAA Tournament game against 14th-seeded Abilene Christian at Lucas Oil Stadium. In fact, it’s the 31st of the 32 matchups on the opening week of play, which means lots of dead time. Only Oregon-VCU tip later.
Texas has won five straight but will have had a full week off between games. Of course, it’s been waiting three years for this.
So in the meantime, one of the hottest teams in college basketball is, well, cooling its jets after the nearly day-long isolation upon its first arrival.
The Longhorns are playing badminton. They’re playing Four Square. Dominoes. Cards. Puzzles.
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Heck, I even heard a rumor they were throwing around a football in the ballroom of the Indianapolis hotel room where they are sequestered. Senior walk-on Blake Nevins initially walked on the football team as a freshman after throwing 19 touchdowns with only two picks as a senior at Houston Cypress Ranch before switching to hoops.
These basketball guys are on such a heater that maybe one will try out for Steve Sarkisian’s Texas football team in spring training once their basketball run is over.
And hopefully that won’t be until April.
But this has been a Texas team that doesn’t know panic.
And it’s more than accustomed to close games. Four of the Longhorns’ seven losses were by one or two points. Seven of their 19 wins were by three points or fewer.
“Sometimes you get in those moments, and guys want to win so bad that there's too much of an anxiety or tension,” Smart said Sunday night, the day after winning the Big 12 Tournament, “and then that restricts you from playing with great freedom. But I thought our guys, for the most part, really let their hair down and played.”
Shaka’s got plenty of hair to let down these days, and he has his best opportunity ever with a solid draw in the East Region, including a favorable first opponent and the least of the four No. 1 seeds in a less than 100% Michigan on its side of the bracket.
Avoiding getting uptight may be the biggest key for the Longhorns. Smart’s teams won the NIT in 2019 after not qualifying for the NCAAs and were a bubble team in 2020 when the tourney got canceled because of the pandemic. It’s been a minute.
At nine points, Texas is a heavy favorite over tiny in-state ACU, which has made only one other NCAA appearance and got blown out by Kentucky by 35 points in 2019. But even Smart joked he used the David and Goliath theme when he was on that VCU run.
But some of these Longhorns, like starters Matt Coleman III and top reserve Jase Febres, were starters on UT's 2019 club. Guard Andrew Jones, this year’s leading scorer, played on that 2018 team that fell in overtime to Nevada in the NCAA first round, but he missed the second half of the year following his leukemia diagnosis.
It’s easy for higher-seeded teams to look past the Cinderellas and often trip on their slippers, including a Virginia, the only No. 1 seed to get shocked by a 16. The unheralded, unknown Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers stunned the Cavaliers by 20 in 2018. Everyone roots for Sister Jean and her eighth-seeded Loyola-Chicago. It happens to 5 seeds all the time. Fans love underdogs, and no favorite’s immune to the upset bug.
Smart knows that script too well. His Virginia Commonwealth team didn’t even know if it would make the tournament in 2011. Not only did his Rams get chosen for a play-in game, they won that one and then four more — including shockers over teams like Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas — to reach the first Final Four in school history before falling to Butler in the semifinals.
“It's interesting because a lot of times we generalize about the whole team, but sometimes, if the team's uptight that means certain individuals are uptight,” Smart said Wednesday. “And it's typically not the whole team, but it’s one or two or three key guys that can really set the thermostat of your room.”
Generally speaking, this is not a team that tenses up. The Longhorns came out on fire in the Big 12 championship game, none more so than Coleman, the team leader who put up 30 on Oklahoma State.
Just how do y’all stay loose, Matt?
“You just get creative,” Coleman said.
The NCAA is doing its part.
Each player, coach, trainer or staffer in every team’s 34-person travel party received a gift package from the NCAA, including a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with a Big Dance theme.
“I didn't open the puzzle,” Coleman admitted. “I never do puzzles. ... Good thing there's like NBA basketball going on right now, so that gives me something to watch.”
The players have to find some ways to amuse themselves. Teams are allowed to go outside as a group for only an hour window once per day. The NCAA sponsors took Texas to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A stadium downtown on Wednesday to tour the Victory Field stadium where the Indianapolis Indians play. Some of the Longhorns got in a little badminton and volleyball in the outfield where nets were set up.
“Our crew played a game of kickball today,” said team publicist Scott McConnell. “Just using any space we have to keep the guys active throughout the day. Mostly just kids being kids.”
In the Longhorns’ team meeting room, the players can play card games or dominoes. Some even work on their chess moves.
“And just, you know, we've been fooling around in our little meeting room right here,” Coleman said. “We did meet a Foursquare, that little Fisher Price group, so we've been trying to keep each other busy and moving.”
The fooling around stops Saturday night. Then, it becomes all business.