Coming into this season, there weren’t many outside the Texas locker room who thought the Longhorns would be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Yet here they are.
Texas (23-10, 11-7 Big 12) earned a No. 7 seed in this year’s Big Dance and will face No. 10 seed Arizona State (21-11, 10-8 Pac-12) Thursday in the Midwest region. After not reaching the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in 15 years under coach Rick Barnes when they went 16-18, the Longhorns are trying to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2011.
“We knew it,” sophomore guard Javan Felix said. “You never don’t think you have a tournament team. But we always knew we were good enough to do anything we wanted to do.”
After being picked to finish eighth out of 10 teams in the Big 12 in the conference’s preseason poll, the Longhorns stormed out of the gate this season, winning 10 of their first 11 games. That run included wins over fellow NCAA Tournament teams Mercer (26-8) and Stephen F. Austin (31-2), along with a second straight win over North Carolina, this one an 86-83 victory in Chapel Hill.
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“Early on, I thought we were a really good team,” sophomore forward Cam Ridley said. “We started the season -1 … Ever since our first scrimmages, I knew it was going to be a really good team.”
Texas seemed to be coming back to earth when it started 0-2 in Big 12 play, but that was before a seven-game win streak that included consecutive wins against Top 25 squads Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor and Kansas, which was ranked No. 6 when it fell to the Longhorns.
Texas has gone 5-6 in its last 11 games, including a lopsided Big 12 semifinal loss to Baylor on Friday, but has an opportunity it didn’t have last season — to make a deep NCAA Tournament run for the first time since an Elite Eight appearance in 2008.
“We just know that the next game that we lose will be our last,” sophomore guard Demarcus Holland said. “That’s motivation for us because we love playing this game and we love playing it together. We just have to stick together and trust the game plan.”
Despite finishing the 2012-13 regular season with a losing record, Texas earned a spot in the College Basketball Invitational, where they fell to Houston in the tournament’s first round. The Longhorns lost their top three scorers from that team and missed out on some blue-chip in-state recruits, but they find themselves in the Big Dance they missed out on last year.
“There’s no doubt it’s a better feeling knowing we’re going to the NCAA Tournament rather than the CBI. Each loss hurts,” sophomore forward Connor Lammert said. “The next time we feel this feeling, it’s the last time we’re going to feel it for the year. This feeling sucks, and everyone here is going to remember it next time we take the floor.”