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'Ready to go': Texas, Texas Tech to meet again one year after COVID-19 cancelled Big 12 tournament

Texas coach Shaka Smart guided his team to three big road games to close the regular season. The Longhorns are seeded third in this week's Big 12 tournament.

The basketball gods love irony.

One year ago, Texas and Texas Tech players were warming up on the court inside T-Mobile Center in Kansas City before trainers rushed on the floor. Everyone to the locker room, they were told. No other explanation was given.

Within minutes, word circulated through the arena that the Big 12 men’s and women’s tournaments were being canceled. COVID-19, a rare infectious disease you were hearing about on the news, had caused a panic. The UT men’s and women’s teams flew home that afternoon and into an uncertain future.

“During that time, I was pretty mad because I wanted to play. I had family there, so I wanted to perform for them,” Texas guard Courtney Ramey said. “But in the grand scheme of things, I understood why they pulled us off the court. And we have a teammate of our own who can be at risk, so I had to think about him as well.”

The Longhorns and Red Raiders have gone through an incredible 12 months, much like the rest of us. They’ll meet again Thursday, once again in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals, just like they were supposed to one year ago. And perhaps more than anything else, everyone is thankful.

RELATED: Big 12 tournament men's preview: No. 3 seed Texas vs. No. 6 seed Texas Tech

“I think everybody's just feeling like this is opportunity, why not give it all we got?” Ramey said. “Every team doesn't get this opportunity. And we're one of them fortunate teams to get it, so why not take full advantage of it.”

Sophomore Kai Jones said he noticed a buzz on the team bus after Texas’ regular-season finale win at TCU. He admitted being unable to sleep Sunday night now that the postseason has arrived.

“I feel pretty ready to go,” Jones said. “I’m kind of excited, because they took it away from us last year, you know, with COVID. So now we get to really go, and I feel like we have a chance to do something special so I'm pretty excited to say the least.”

Texas guard Courtney Ramey celebrates making a basket during the Feb. 23 win in Austin over Kansas. "Every team doesn't get this opportunity," he said this week. "And we're one of them fortunate teams to get it, so why not take full advantage of it.”

Ever since he arrived on campus, Texas coach Shaka Smart has talked nonstop about cherishing the opportunity to play the game you love. It doesn’t really hit home until basketball — not to mention everyday life — is either taken away or upended. 

The Longhorns were forced to stay away from the workout facilities until the fall. Then when players returned, they were subjected to three-times-per-week COVID-19 testing. They had to live in as close to bubble-like fashion as possible.

In January, Texas started the year with a rollicking, blockbuster win at No. 3 Kansas. Then, UT went to Morgantown and beat No. 14 West Virginia, pushing the team’s record to 10-1.

But then COVID-19 got its hooks in the Horns, sidelining several players and even Smart himself. The back half of January featured losses to No. 24 Oklahoma, No. 2 Baylor and Oklahoma State. It wasn’t until one week into February that Texas looked like itself again.

“I was watching a game yesterday afternoon, and the commentator made a really good point,” Smart said. “He said that the COVID pauses affect everyone differently, and that fall at different times in peoples’ schedules.”

The Horns wound up having to play a back-loaded road schedule. Texas finished the regular season winning at Iowa State, Oklahoma and TCU, giving the program a major psychological boost at the most critical time of the season.

Texas (17-7, 11-6 Big 12) finished third alone in the regular-season standings, matching the program’s best finish in six seasons under Smart. The Horns are a lock to make the NCAA Tournament and may possibly get a No. 3 or No. 4 seed.

“I told the guys, right around early January, I said we’re going to go through more adversity and more challenges,” Smart said. “And the difference between the great teams and everyone else is the great teams were able to use that adversity and those challenges to come closer together and to get stronger. So now’s the time, more than ever, to do that.”

The sixth-seeded Red Raiders (17-9, 9-8) had similar issues this season, delays and rescheduled games. Tech also had an uneven road to Kansas City — winning three games, losing three and winning three more.

Even though players for both teams are now conditioned to COVID-19, it’s still an issue. Kansas’ David McCormack has been ruled out this week due to contact tracing. Players will also be kept in quarantined environments in Kansas City. City officials are allowing just 3,800 fans, about 20% of arena capacity, in to see the games.

Like it’s been all season, reporters are not being allowed into the locker rooms or granted postgame access. Everything will be done via Zoom. 

Teams that make the NCAA Tournament will fly to Indianapolis and then essentially stay there until they are eliminated. Shipping teams to far-flung regional locations will not happen this year.

But it beats not having a tournament, like last year. 

“From everything I’ve been told, when we do get to Kansas City, it’ll be pretty buttoned up from the standpoint of contact with anyone that’s not part of that (tier-one access), or whatever they call it,” Smart said. “So hopefully that will be relatively safe.”

Everyone will be as safe as possible. Now, the Horns need to go win some games.

What good is battling through COVID-19 if you can’t capitalize when it matters most? The Horns are going to make the NCAAs, so there should be little to no extra pressure this week in Kansas City.

As Texas guard Matt Coleman III said, “I just feel like it’s just let your hair down and just hoop.”

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