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On guard! Texas’ Big Three must put puzzle pieces together for Longhorns in NCAAs

Coleman: ‘You respect your opponent, you understand the scouting report, their strengths, but it’s about us.’

Texas guard Matt Coleman III was named the Big 12 Tournament's Most Outstanding Player. He's shooting 38.9% from 3-point range this season.

Trapped inside the Indianapolis JW Marriott, the Longhorns have to find ways to pass the time before the NCAA Tournament.

“You get creative,” guard Matt Coleman III said. “They gave us a puzzle. I don’t ever do puzzles. I started putting a puzzle together.”

There’s nothing puzzling about how third-seeded Texas can advance in the NCAA Tournament. Coleman, Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey have to play well. When they do, Texas wins. If they don’t, the Horns usually struggle. It’s that simple.

It’s a guard-oriented game, and the Longhorns (19-7) need their Big Three to answer the bell.

“It’s what you want,” Coleman said. “I like our chances every night, no matter who we play against, when I look to my left and look to my right.”

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Texas guard Courtney Ramey, right, struggled in the Big 12 Tournament but has shown flashes of brilliance at times this season.

Coleman is the only one of the three who have played in the NCAAs. He was a freshman in 2018 when Texas suffered a first-round loss to Nevada in overtime. Jones was battling leukemia and missed the second half of the 2017-18 season. Ramey didn’t arrive at UT until the following season.

So Coleman is the only key guard who still recalls the second-half meltdown against the Wolf Pack three years ago. He takes nothing for granted. Despite the Horns being almost double-digit favorites in the first round, Coleman isn’t looking ahead to a second-round matchup, the Sweet 16 or beyond.

“I think 90% it’s about us,” Coleman said. “You respect your opponent, you understand the scouting report, their strengths, but it’s about us. All year has been about us. The games where we’ve been our identity and we’ve been able to trust our coaching staff and respect the scouting report, it’s put us in position to win or win.

“We control our destiny.”

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Coleman is getting more traction as March rolls along. He had only two points at Oklahoma on March 3, but it was a critical late-game shot. He had 19 points against Texas Tech in the Big 12 quarterfinals and then a career-high 30 in the championship game against Oklahoma State.

Jones has finished in double figures each of the last four games and was 4-for-10 from 3-point range at the Big 12 Tournament. Ramey was 1-for-14 shooting in two games in Kansas City. 

Jericho Sims and Kai Jones can help with dominant frontcourt play, but Texas will go only as far as Coleman, Jones and Ramey lead. Years and years of NCAA Tournament history can’t be wrong. Guards win in March.

Texas guard Andrew Jones missed the Longhorns' 2018 NCAA Tournament appearance while battling leukemia.

“One of the big keys is for our three guards to take care of the ball and make good decisions,” UT coach Shaka Smart said.

Smart said Abilene Christian is known for playing solid perimeter defense, contesting 3-point shots and getting their hands in passing lanes.

“They definitely do a lot of denial, so we have to understand that we don’t see that much in the Big 12, with people denying us passes,” Smart said. “The good thing is I think our guys have a sense of how to flow even when a pass is not available.”

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All teams cleared: All 68 teams have cleared medical protocols to enter the NCAA bubble, so the field is now locked. The First Four games are scheduled for Thursday. 

Texas is allowed only one practice inside Lucas Oil Field before facing 14th seeded Abilene Christian (23-4) on Saturday night. During the week, the Horns are practicing on one of many temporary courts set up inside the city’s convention center.

‘One Shining Moment’: The Longhorns haven’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2018. So they haven’t been included in the signature “One Shining Moment” montage after the NCAA championship game for a few years, either.

Smart said he hasn’t addressed that with the Horns yet, but “there’s a lot of time here” in the NCAA bubble. 

“It’s inspiration for me,” Smart said. “That’s one of my favorite NCAA Tournament memories before I was even in coaching, just watching that. It’s kind of a bittersweet thing because as a fan. I remember watching and it’s like you don’t want the song to end. When the song ends, the season is over.”

VCU, 10 years later: This month is the 10th anniversary of Virginia Commonwealth’s run to the Final Four. Smart’s former team captured the nation’s imagination as Cinderella beat Kansas in the 2011 region final. What’s long been forgotten is how that team also had to play in the First Four.

“I don’t know where that trophy is. I don’t know where that net is. But the relationships with those guys is awesome,” Smart said.

Smart said after Texas won the Big 12 Tournament, he got a FaceTime call from former VCU guard Joey Rodriguez, who averaged 10.4 points for the Rams during that 2010-11 season. Rodriguez was calling from a nightclub in Orlando.

“That’s what this is all about, the relationships,” Smart said. “I remember when I worked for Billy Donovan, he told me once, ‘When you win the national championship, it’s awesome, it’s great, there’s all this positive stuff that comes with it. But you also get the sense of is this it? Is that all there is?’ He talked about the relationships, and that’s the most powerful thing.”

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