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Now’s the time: Texas, a team loaded with veterans, must capture moment during NCAA Tournament

With veteran guards, NBA-bound big men, the Longhorns open NCAA play Saturday against 14th-seeded Wildcats

Shaka Smart should check a major box on Saturday. Oddsmakers have third-seeded Texas as comfortable favorites over 14th-seeded Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

It should be Smart’s first NCAA win in six seasons coaching the Longhorns.

Again, the key word is “should.”

March Madness is emotional, outrageous and always unpredictable. The Longhorns haven’t gone dancing since 2018, so they should truly enjoy the moment at Lucas Oil Stadium. But make no mistake, this team as presently constructed must win now — Saturday, Monday, next weekend and beyond.

“I think it starts with understanding that the game is not determined,” said Smart, who is 0-2 in NCAA games with the Longhorns. 

Texas coach Shaka Smart guides a squad of 10 veterans and one talented freshman, potential one-and-done standout Greg Brown. Smart is making his third NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons with the Longhorns.

NCAA men's preview:No. 3 seed Texas vs. No. 14 seed Abilene Christian

“It’s TBD,” Smart added. “Whoever plays better is going to win. Whoever plays harder is going to get the loose ball. Whoever runs faster is going to have an advantage in transition.”

Texas (19-7) has a team full of veterans and underclassmen getting plenty of NBA attention. The next few weeks is likely to be the last time most of these players are together. This is a rare moment when all the stars are aligned, the opportunity is there and the Horns must accelerate.

Point guard Matt Coleman III is a senior. While the NCAA has granted all players an extra year of eligibility, he is unlikely to return to UT. “I think he’s done all he can do to show the pro level who he is and what he brings to the table that he needs to go off and chase that dream,” Coleman’s father, Cliff, said.

Forward Jericho Sims has spent four years transforming his body into a chiseled machine. In the last few weeks, he has shown incredible footwork and touch around the basket. The 6-foot-10 senior will definitely get a look by NBA teams.

Texas forward Jericho Sims dunks over TCU center Kevin Samuel during their game in Fort Worth on March 7.

“He's been enforcing his will,” sophomore Brock Cunningham said. “We knew Jericho could be this player the whole season, his whole career. And for him to pull it out when we need him has been amazing.”

Sophomore forward Kai Jones is on a rocket ship, same as Jaxson Hayes was two years ago: off the radar in October, all over it in March. Sadly for UT fans, Jones may go pro to strike while the iron’s hot. He has played his way into possibly becoming a first-round pick.

Forward Greg Brown was always thought to be a one-and-done freshman. Is that still the case considering how the last month has gone? NBA scouts will be closely monitoring his NCAA performance and body language in the coming games.

Guard Andrew Jones has been at Texas since the summer of 2016. His sophomore season was derailed by leukemia, and he missed most of the 2018-19 season with his recovery. 

Here’s a player who went to the NBA scouting combine after his freshman season, so it’s something he still thinks about. Offseason hip surgery gave Jones more explosiveness. He wound up averaging a career-high 14.6 points and shooting 33.1% from 3-point range.

Would Jones really want a sixth year at Texas?

“I just remember two years ago when he was working out, and he had the bag around, attached to him while he was practicing,” Coleman said. “He was doing anything just to be on the court.”

Guard Jase Febres, a 3-point specialist, is a senior. He needed half the season to get healthy from microfracture knee surgery. He has a decision to make about staying for a fifth year. Royce Hamm Jr., a reserve, is also a senior. 

Texas guard Andrew Jones has been at UT since the summer of 2016, his career interrupted by a battle with leukemia. He and a handful of other Longhorns likely will be playing their final games at Texas during the NCAA Tournament.

That just leaves juniors Courtney Ramey (starting guard) and Kamaka Hepa (reserve forward), sophomore Donovan Williams (guard) and Cunningham. 

Smart signed four players during the early signing period, a class that ranked 12th nationally according to 247Sports' composite rankings. While those are all solid players, they will all be freshmen. 

From looking at each individual player on this roster, the Longhorns should have extra incentive as a whole. The program is likely facing a massive rebuild next season.

Smart is trying to keep the Horns loose.

“My experience is that when you get to this time of year, when you get to the NCAA Tournament, you also don’t want to play out of avoidance,” Smart said. “I don’t really read the internet to start to worry about what if this happens, what if that happens.”

This is a group that came together in 2019 and won the NIT championship. The Horns were eager to show how they had grown last year, but the pandemic ruined everything.

Well, now’s the time. Texas must capitalize. 

“It means everything,” Coleman said. “In high school, when you come to college, this is what you want. You want to be able to compete for a national title, playing in March.”

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