Of course the Longhorns would rather be playing in the NCAA Tournament instead of the NIT.
But the frustration from a 16-16 season is long gone, as judged by the smiles in the locker room after wins over South Dakota State and Xavier.
Texas has reached the NIT quarterfinals and will host Colorado at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Erwin Center.
Just under 1,600 showed up for the first round, then about 3,200 came for the second. At that rate, the Horns (18-16) should have a fair amount of fans on the premises for what could be a new beginning for the UT men’s program. Tickets are $12 or $14.
With a win over the fourth-seeded Buffaloes (23-12), UT coach Shaka Smart’s club would advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York. Second-seeded Texas is the highest rated team left among the final eight in the NIT, according to Kenpom rankings. UT is 30th; Colorado is 63rd.
TCU, ranked 46th, is lurking in another NIT bracket and could also reach New York. If the Horns and Frogs both advance, they would meet in the semifinals.
Smart said the players discussed “a level of pride” about the way Texas finished the regular season. The Horns went 1-4 without suspended guard Kerwin Roach II in the lineup and then lost to Kansas at the Big 12 tournament.
“If you don’t advance in the NIT, then that’s the taste you have in your mouth, if you’re a senior, for the rest of your life,” Smart said. “If you’re a returning player, for several months.”
Smart told the players about the 2007 Clemson Tigers. Head coach Oliver Purnell’s team went 7-9 in ACC play that year and finished eighth in the league standings. Smart was an assistant on that team that was knocked out of the ACC tournament in the first round by Florida State.
“We got picked to play in the NIT and it was a battle to get our guys into it,” Smart said. “But once our guys starting fighting and competing, it’s fun, because if you’re a competitor, that’s what you like to do.”
Clemson beat East Tennessee State, Ole Miss and Syracuse. Then came a 68-67 win over Air Force in the NIT semifinals at the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”
“If you can make it to New York, which that team did, that’s a great experience,” Smart said. “So we’ve got one more game to make it to New York, and the goal is to win the whole thing.”
Clemson lost to West Virginia in the finals. The next year, Clemson went 24-10, finished third in the ACC and reached the NCAAs.
Texas doesn’t have any recent NIT experience, so it’s difficult to forecast what a trip to New York would mean for next year’s group. Still, there’s some reasons for optimism bubbling under the surface.
Guard Courtney Ramey is averaging 15 points and shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range in the first two NIT games. Guard Jase Febres has hit six 3-pointers and even pulled a head-fake and drove inside for a late mid-range shot attempt against Xavier. “I’m trying to become a more two-dimensional player,” Febres said with a smile afterward.
Forward Jericho Sims still doesn’t talk all that much, but his smile spoke volumes when asked about the critical block against Xavier that saved UT in regulation. Younger players Gerald Liddell, Royce Hamm Jr. and Kamaka Hepa are all getting playing time they wouldn’t get otherwise, too.
The Buffs feel this postseason run will help them next season, too. Colorado players weren’t too thrilled with a 76-60 win over Norfolk State in the second round.
“I think it’s a good sign for our program when you win a game by 16 at home, and you feel a little sense of disappointment,” coach Tad Boyle said, according to the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera. “I felt like we weren’t at our best tonight.”
Both teams should be energized knowing what’s a stake. It may not be the NCAAs, but a trip to Madison Square Garden isn’t bad, either.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.