- Shaka Smart: “You never know for sure what’s the spark in players’ minds, collectively and individually.”
- Kerwin Roach II on getting to the NCAAs: “It’s something you dream about if you’re a real basketball player.”
- Longhorns went 3-2 in final five games of the regular season without Mo Bamba, Eric Davis at times.
Team meetings can be volatile, hostile and all-around unpredictable affairs. Typically, things look bleak. Players don’t organize team meetings to pat each other on the back.
In Texas’ case, the 74-73 double-overtime loss to Baylor on Feb. 12 prompted one such gathering where even coach Shaka Smart admitted “there were real fireworks.”
Several players acknowledged it got heated, though none have detailed what was discussed. “Family matters on that,” junior Dylan Osetkowski said. But in a season that could have gone either way, what happened in the locker room that night might have set the Longhorns (19-14) on a permanent course to the NCAA Tournament.
The Baylor game was UT’s third straight loss, and the Horns were 5-8 in league play. Players were still reeling from the loss of guard Andrew Jones, who had been diagnosed with cancer. The coaches could feel an NCAA bid slipping away.
“After the Baylor game, people just spoke their mind,” freshman point guard Matt Coleman said. “We just had to be real with each other at that point, because it was a frustrating time losing three in a row. You knew something needed to be changed.
“We just had to find a way to respond, and we had to look into each other’s eyes and be truthful with one another,” he said. “We just needed to find out what it takes to get over this hump. We know we have all the pieces and tools to be good in this locker room, but something needed to change.”
Said Osetkowski: “It was tough. … I think the next week or so, we knew we could learn a lot from that three-game stretch where we did lose. I think it was very helpful to being where we’re at now.”
Spend any time around these players, and you’ll quickly see they all truly like each other. This team has no bad apples. Smart said the players always listen to the coaches and absorb what’s being said.
“You never know for sure what’s the spark in players’ minds, collectively and individually,” Smart said, recalling the moment. “As opposed to being something that pulled us apart, it brought us closer together. It gave us more resolve to go try and be our best the next time.”
Three days later, Texas played at Oklahoma, a team still ranked 23rd nationally but had lost four straight at that point. UT’s theme for the road trip to Norman was “One More.”
One more defensive stop. One more rebound. One more steal. “Everybody try to do one more thing to help us win,” Kerwin Roach II said after a much-needed 77-66 victory.
Roach made a head-long dive for a loose ball. Jacob Young, who hadn’t seen much playing time up until then, had two steals in the open court that he took the other way for layups. Osetkowski came alive in the second half and Coleman drove right through OU’s defense for a game-clinching layup.
The fight shown in the locker room finally showed up on the court.
There was far more adversity to come. School officials benched guard Eric Davis Jr. on Feb. 23 after it was alleged he received $1,500 from an agent. He was averaging 8.8 points per game. The Horns still knocked off Oklahoma State at home by one.
Freshman big man Mo Bamba would miss the last two regular-season games with a toe injury. Texas lost in respectable fashion by 10 at Kansas and then beat 20th-ranked West Virginia 87-79 in overtime.
“What I told the guys was, ‘Hey, we don’t have any other choice but to figure this out together,’” Smart said. “I think they did a good job of that.”
This Texas team that will face seventh-seeded Nevada (27-7) on Friday has only two juniors — Roach and Osetkowski. Roach is the only player who will dress Friday with any NCAA Tournament experience. Both players go through bouts of inconsistency. Young, a sophomore, has been mostly a role player, although he’s coming on strong. He had a career-high 29 points against Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament.
The rest of the rotation is made up of freshmen: Bamba, Coleman, Jase Febres and Jericho Sims. Bamba is a one-and-done player that’s projected to be an NBA lottery pick this summer. The rest are foundational players Smart can build his program with.
Smart has held this team together with a seven-man rotation, duct tape and hope.
Even though Texas lost Jones, Bamba and Davis, many still expect the program to be regular participants in the NCAAs. Despite it all, that’s exactly what these Longhorns have accomplished.
This could be a group with more fight ahead.
“I won’t feel like it’s pressure, but it’s something you want to live up to and something you want to do,” Roach said. “Coming into college, everybody dreams about that star player coming down and you, that star freshman, steps in for that star player on their team.
“But everybody matured. Jacob, Jase, Jericho — all of them matured,” Roach added. “It shows a lot about our team, fight and will. Some would say it’s pressure, but it’s an expectation on yourself. You want to go out there and perform well and not let your team down.”
Roach said he wants to be on a team where, no matter what obstacles are thrown your way, you are still expected to perform a high level. That’s certainly the case at Texas.
“You want that,” Roach said, “and it’s something you dream about if you’re a real basketball player.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.