Listen to Austin 360 Radio

No. 15 Texas 76, TCU 64: Horns ‘moving in the right direction’ heading into postseason

Longhorns win third Big 12 road game in six days; No. 3 seed Texas will face No. 6 seed Texas Tech at 8:30 p.m. Thursday

Texas guard Matt Coleman III shoots over TCU guard Mike Miles during the Longhorns' 76-64 win on Sunday. Texas closed the regular season with three straight conference road games in six days.

There’s so much to like about 15th-ranked Texas. It’s a team that draws you in with its soaring athleticism and physical defense.

Still, you wonder. Will these Longhorns finally convert all of their advantages into March postseason success?

“As long as we continue to play the right way,” guard Andrew Jones said, “I think that’s when we’re at our best.”

By all accounts, this is coach Shaka Smart’s best, most athletic team in his six seasons with the Longhorns.

Thanks to Sunday’s 76-64 win at TCU, Texas closed the regular season having won three Big 12 road games in six days. At Schollmaier Arena, five Horns finished in double figures, at times it was a dunk-a-thon and they set new season highs for assists (20) and turnovers forced (22).

Now, the Horns (17-7, 11-6 Big 12) are headed first to the Big 12 tournament this week, then the NCAAs next week. Texas, a No. 3 seed, will face sixth-seeded Texas Tech (17-9, 9-8) in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals at approximately 8:30 p.m. Thursday. 

On Selection Sunday, they’re likely to get the highest NCAA Tournament seed since the Horns were on the No. 4-line in 2011. Some bracketologists are even projecting Texas as a potential No. 3, though that probably depends on how things go in Kansas City.

“Right now, I just feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” guard Matt Coleman III said. “Nobody’s going to be perfect. Nobody’s a championship team today. But as we move forward, we get our rest, we practice and get ready for Kansas City. We’re on pace.”

This matchup may sound familiar. Texas and Tech players were warming up inside T-Mobile Center for a quarterfinal matchup last year when they were told to leave immediately. The tournament had been canceled for COVID-19. The sports world came to a screeching halt.

Texas forward Jericho Sims, right, fouls TCU guard RJ Nembhard as Longhorns teammates Greg Brown and Matt Coleman III defend during the Longhorns' win on Sunday.

This is a different year and a different team, Coleman noted after the TCU win. 

It’s more experienced, primarily. This is a team with three veteran guards, a future first-round NBA draft pick, two athletic big men with NBA potential and several clear-cut role players. This group has issues with consistency, but when it's hot — when it’s “connected” — it can battle anybody, anywhere, any time. 

“When you do something that you set out to do, like this week winning three games, can you take the positive aspects of that,” Smart said. “For instance, our guys in these three games were really, really good in huddles, communicating with each other and encouraging each other.”

Smart said only these players truly understand how this season has been a different grind. COVID-19 tests three times a week. Quarantines. A wild ice storm. Huge, uplifting wins and heart-breaking losses were thrown in for good measure.

Smart believes the players must take ownership, and that must be emphasized at all times.

“So can we continue momentum? Yeah, if we learn that, hey, it really helps each other when we do that,” Smart said. “Can we continue the momentum? Yeah, if we take the good things, the passing and the pace that we had in the second half, take that to Kansas City.”

If every team is only as good as the last game, then the Horns should go soaring into the postseason. Last year, Texas had won five straight but lost the regular-season finale to Oklahoma State in rather demoralizing fashion. That changed the narrative. Was UT on the NCAA bubble or not?

This year, the Horns are definitely going to Indianapolis for a unique NCAA Tournament experience. But they have an uplifting feel going into Kansas City.

Having already beaten Iowa State and Oklahoma on the road earlier this week, Texas needed to finish strong against TCU (12-13, 5-11). Smart’s club started 5-for-5 as Jericho Sims (13 points) got two dunks and Andrew Jones hit a 3-pointer.

Kai Jones looked like a man possessed out there, making blocks on the defensive end and running the floor to dunk on the other. He finished with 10 points, including getting two off a terrific bullet pass from Coleman. 

Texas forward Kai Jones scores in front of TCU's RJ Nembhard during the second half of Sunday's UT win. The Longhorns are the No. 3 seed in this week's Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.

Courtney Ramey scored 11 of his 13 points after halftime and dished out a team-high six assists. The Horns had 20 assists on 30 made baskets and refused to let the ball “stick” in half-court sets.

Texas played solid defense, forcing TCU into turnovers galore. The Frogs were also 8-for-21 from 3-point range but did shoot 47.1% overall. Yet Smart will probably toss and turn over how the Frogs cut through the Horns’ full-court press and got Mike Miles’ dunk.

Smart won’t spend much time thinking about Greg Brown’s between-the-legs missed dunk, though. Neither will his teammates, most likely. Andrew Jones threw a lob for him to slam home with 2:49 remaining.

“I just want him to feel good. Get his spirits up,” Jones said. “I know he missed a highlight dunk that he’s normally making 100% of the time. I know that can be demoralizing. I just want to keep him engaged and continue letting him have fun with the game.”

Oh, the fun is just beginning. Brown and the Horns are headed into the postseason with high expectations. This Texas fan base wants to get excited again about postseason basketball, too.

The Horns are buckled as it's wheels up for Kansas City.

“I could just feel that energy going into the game, in shootaround, in warmups, everybody had a smile on their face,” Coleman said. “The last regular season game of the year, we just wanted to finish strong, finish the right way.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.