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Representing the 757, Texas guard Matt Coleman eager to rep Longhorns in NCAA Tournament

After finding his groove, ‘Matty Ice’ playing with passion, joy for No. 3 seed Texas

Texas point guard Matt Coleman III originally committed to Virginia Commonwealth and coach Shaka Smart, then followed Smart to Texas. He wants what Smart had at VCU: a Final Four appearance. "He’s talked about it, what it takes, how it felt," Coleman said. "... That's something I wanted to experience and hopefully we can experience that this year.”

As a freshman, Matt Coleman III was the one missing three consecutive free throws in a close game at Texas Tech.

The next two seasons, he was the one leading Texas to an NIT championship, banking in game-winners at Oklahoma and leading UT to the brink of the NCAA Tournament. 

Now a senior, Coleman is the one hitting two clutch free throws to eliminate Tech from the Big 12 Tournament. He’s drilling game-winners over North Carolina, ringing up a career-high 30 over Oklahoma State, encouraging teammates and thriving in the moment.

"Matty Ice" is loving every minute of it.

“I'm from Virginia, baby. That's why,” the Norfolk, Va., native said. “That's in my bloodline. That’s just how we do in the 757.”

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

The Longhorns don’t get many players from the 757 — the area code that dials up the Seven Cities area of southeastern Virginia. Historically, Texas has been a 713, 214 and 210 type of program. The third-seeded Longhorns are now hoping to reach the Final Four with Coleman calling the shots.

“That’s kind of like the attitude all the kids have in this area,” said Coleman’s father, Cliff Coleman, the men’s basketball coach at Bryant and Stratton Junior College. “The guy that really brought it to the forefront was Allen Iverson. That was his mantra. He always let you know he was from the 757.”

Had things gone according to plan, Coleman would be enjoying a successful career at Virginia Commonwealth. Coach Shaka Smart started recruiting him to VCU in the eighth grade. ESPN would eventually rank Coleman as the 29th-best player in the nation from Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.

Texas guard Matt Coleman III, a senior, has 475 career assists, fourth all-time in school history. He’s five away from B.J. Tyler, who ranks third. That could happen in Saturday night's first-round NCAA game against Abilene Christian.

But Smart left VCU for Texas, and Coleman followed him to Austin. They have since become a synonymous pairing. 

“Coach, he was a Final Four coach at the time when he was at VCU,” Coleman said. “It was somebody that has reached that steppingstone. He’s talked about it, what it takes, how it felt. The biggest thing is just how it felt for him, for his players for the people around him and how it just opens up doors and life for everybody that's a part of it. 

“That's something I wanted to experience and hopefully we can experience that this year,” he added.

Smart can attest to the value of a true point guard. During the 2015-16 season, Smart’s first at Texas, Javan Felix and Isaiah Taylor ran the floor show as UT reached the NCAAs. The next season, the Horns didn’t have a true point guard — and it was a disaster. Smart’s Horns went 11-22 and finished last in the Big 12.

Watch:Breaking down Texas’ Big 12 championship, NCAA hopes and picking a winner

Assistants were of full-throated belief that Coleman was something of a savior. He would be to Smart what T.J. Ford was to former Texas coach Rick Barnes, they thought.

Coleman started all 34 games as a freshman and averaged 4.1 assists. Those three missed free throws in Lubbock weren’t the biggest reason why Texas lost 73-71 in overtime. But there was Smart’s prized recruit, not to mention one of the team’s better free throw shooters, missing all three in a clutch situation.

Still, the Longhorns never gave up on him. 

Coleman, who's averaged 11.3 points a game for his career, also has 475 career assists, fourth all-time in school history. He’s five away from B.J. Tyler, who ranks third. 

Johnny Moore set a UT record that’s practically impossible to break nowadays with great players leaving early for the NBA. Moore had 714 assists from 1976-79. Ford was well on pace, though. He had 527 assists in just two seasons and left after leading the Horns to the 2003 Final Four.

“I came in with Matt as a freshman, so I’m rocking with him till the day I die,” guard Jase Febres said. “He comes out, he gives his heart and his soul to the game every single night out, and we need that.”

Cliff Coleman remembers a time when Matt didn’t make the McDonald’s All-American team in high school. All kinds of friends and competitors called Matt as a pick-me-up. “These are high-level guys, but they reached back and said, ‘keep pushing’ or whatever for motivation,” Cliff Coleman said.

Cliff Coleman always told Matt and his younger brother Chase, a 5-foot-9 sophomore guard at Virginia, the same thing about teammates. “When you go into these tournaments and camps, they’ve got to play with you and play for you,” Cliff Coleman said.

Matt Coleman didn’t have to do anything special to win over teammates at Texas. He was just himself.  

Matt Coleman III, left, and Kai Jones celebrate Texas' 67-66 win over Texas Tech in the Big 12 quarterfinals. “He comes out, he gives his heart and his soul to the game every single night out, and we need that,” fellow guard Jase Febres said of Coleman.

He stood behind teammates after frustrating losses at Kansas, West Virginia and Iowa State. He kept his head up when the Horns missed the NCAAs in 2019 and led them to the NIT championship.

Coleman heard the noise surrounding Smart and the coach’s job status last season, too. In four full seasons, Smart has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game. Last season, Smart’s fifth, the tournament was canceled because of COVID-19.

That’s why Coleman was crying “tears of joy” after the Horns won the Big 12 championship. 

“I’m just so happy for him ... He takes the heat for those bad years that Texas had and it has led to this," Coleman said. "Man, I’m just happy for him, because I want this for him.”

That doesn’t mean Smart doesn’t hold his point guard accountable.

“We were kind of at each other’s throats even during the Oklahoma State game,” Smart said. “He threw that behind-the-back pass, and actually it’s a terrific pass if you’re throwing it to the five guys in the world that have the best instincts and hands.”

Smart said he knows Coleman is dialed in when he reacts like he did against the Cowboys. After one particular play, “he ran back on defense, and then jumped up in the air, like a deer. Just kind of randomly, and he's done that before.”

Smart said that’s when Coleman is playing with joy and passion. Some of that is bound to rub off on teammates against Abilene Christian in Saturday’s first-round matchup or against whoever else stands in Texas’ way.

“I just appreciate everybody that’s in my life that I know and that I don't know, but just showing love and appreciation for me and just happy for my success,” Coleman said. “That just keeps me motivated, keeps me going to move forward and do more.”

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