After a one-year absence and a roller coaster season, the Longhorns are back in the NCAA Tournament. Texas opens its run in Nashville Friday afternoon against Nevada.
“We’ve had some really good moments this year, but our guys have gotten better,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “We’ve grown as a program culturally. We’re still far from where we want to be, but we’ve come a long way and we’re excited about this opportunity here.”
The Horns are such a young team, and have so little postseason experience that junior guard Kerwin Roach is only player on the roster to have played in the Big Dance. But that experience ended in heartbreaking fashion: A game-winning, half-court shot at the buzzer by Northern Iowa.”
“You’ve got to play everyone like it’s your last, and that’s what I’ve been preaching to the guys,” Roach said. “I think they’ve really taken it head on and just play gonna your heart out. You’re gonna see us play our heart out.”
For freshman forward Mo Bamba, who figures to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft later this year, this year’s tournament is likely his first and last.
“It wasn’t even for me it was more so for the guys around, the program because we’re coming off a year where we didn’t particularly make anything not even the NIT so making this shows a pretty good turnaround for the future,” Bamba said.
In terms of experience, Nevada is the exact opposite of the Longhorns – they’re a veteran team with NCAA Tournament experience.
“They have older guys who are extremely tough,” Smart said. “They play with an urgency.”
The biggest obstacle for Texas this year has been the loss of Andrew Jones to leukemia. But even before they hit the court for their open practice on Thursday, players and coaches were on the phone FaceTiming with their teammate.
“It’s always great to hear from Andrew,” Matt Coleman said. “Great spirit. You see he’s doing well. I’m sad he can’t be here. It hurts be cause he should be here with us. Now, we have something to play for.”