Men's Basketball

Despite criticism, Texas men enter NCAA Tournament playing well

After a midseason injury, sophomore guard Isaiah Taylor, right, could have Texas pointing in the right direction heading into the NCAA Tournament.
After a midseason injury, sophomore guard Isaiah Taylor, right, could have Texas pointing in the right direction heading into the NCAA Tournament. AP

Texas’ selection to the NCAA Tournament was met with biting criticism among some college basketball pundits, what with the Longhorns’ collapse this season under weighty expectations.

Texas (20-13), a No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, will face six-seed Butler (22-10) at 1:45 p.m. Thursday in Pittsburgh.

The Longhorns climbed to as high as sixth in The Associated Press rankings before losing a close game to No. 1 Kentucky in December, which set off a midseason slide. Against the Wildcats, Texas played without sophomore point guard Isaiah Taylor, who went on to miss 10 games with an injury.

Texas, though, enters the tournament playing its best basketball since the holidays, despite blowing a big lead to Iowa State in a Big 12 Conference quarterfinals loss. The Longhorns had won three consecutive games entering Friday’s games and six of 10 overall. Tempering the enthusiasm for such a stat were four consecutive losses during that stretch.

“I think so,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said Monday if he thought Texas was capable of making a run. “They were in their best stretch of the season [coming into the Iowa State game] and they were impressive against Texas Tech.

“I think that’s a dangerous team that could make some noise in March and April.”

Longhorns coach Rick Barnes on Monday attributed much of the slide to Taylor’s injury, which forced him to miss 10 games and altered the team’s playing rotation and chemistry. Players were forced into different roles with different minutes and then forced to adjust and go back when Taylor returned.

“We came in with a lot of expectations,” Barnes said. Taylor’s injury “did affect us and him as much as anybody.”

That position is as important to a team as any on the floor and, noting that Taylor is just a sophomore, those were 10 games he could have used to develop and build relationships with teammates.

They meet again

Baylor coach Scott Drew’s counterpart in a first-round game will be on crutches.

Georgia State coach Ron Hunter tore his Achilles’ tendon while celebrating the Panthers’ Sun Belt Conference championship victory on Sunday.

The Bears (24-9), the No. 3 seed in the West Region, meet 14-seed Georgia State (25-9) at 12:40 p.m. Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.

Drew is familiar with Hunter, who coached against Valparaiso, coached by Drew’s father, Homer Drew, when both were in the Summit Conference. The Hunter-led IUPUI defeated top-seeded Valpo in the 2003 conference title game.

“I know he’s in some pain,” Drew said. “At the end of the day, he’s a gamer; he’ll be a go.”

Joked Drew: “He used to be pretty active on the sidelines. … Jump in there on a trap and make it six-on-five.”

Duke influence

Midwest No. 5-seed West Virginia’s first-round game against No. 12 Buffalo includes the intrigue of being the Bulls’ first NCAA appearance and former Duke guard Bobby Hurley’s first as a coach.

The game is on many upset radars considering the Bulls’ guard-savvy backcourt is expected to measure up with the Mountaineers’ full-court pressure, which should be back to form with guards Juwan Staten and Gary Browne back from injury, coach Bob Huggins said.

The Mountaineers and Bulls enter with 23-9 records.

NCAA prep for the Bulls includes good road tests this season at No. 1 Kentucky and national No. 3 Wisconsin.

“They won’t be in awe of anybody,” Huggins said.

“We’ve got one guy on our roster who has been to the NCAA Tournament, so I don’t feel very sorry for them,” Huggins joked. “They really compete.”

Briefly

▪ Big 12 coaches all agreed that after more than 30 games played the league’s reputation as perhaps the best in the nation doesn’t hang in the balance of what happens the next three weeks. “Was the SEC the best football league in the country last year? Absolutely. They had a bad bowl season,” said coach Bill Self of Kansas, one of seven teams in the tournament. Nonetheless, “it would be nice to see our league step forward.”

▪ Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford also said he was moderately surprised TCU wasn’t selected to the NIT, though he figured the Horned Frogs were squeezed by some upsets in conference tournaments that improved résumés. “Are they deserving? Absolutely,” he said.

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