By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
AUSTIN – It’s the final week of March 2019 and there are just three teams from the vaunted Big 12 Conference still playing basketball — Texas Tech, TCU, and the not-dead-yet Texas Longhorns.
Yes, the Red Raiders were expected by many to remain alive and part of the NCAA Tournament’s "Sweet 16" based on a record-breaking regular season. But it’s a surprise that Texas is still in the hunt for a postseason championship, albeit the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and not the “Big Dance.”
The Longhorns, and TCU, earned berths in the NIT quarterfinals via two home wins over the first two rounds, Texas' latest being a 78-76 overtime victory over Xavier Sunday.
Next up for Texas is a round-of-eight dustup Wednesday at the Frank Erwin Center against former conference rival Colorado, with the winner of that battle garnering a trip to the semifinals April 2 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“We’ve got one more game to make it to New York,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said, “and the goal is to win the whole thing.”
There’s no official slogan for the NIT, but listening to the teams that win in the NIT, each of which is competing after failing to make the NCAA field of 68, perhaps the event should adopt the mantra of “didn’t want to be here, but since we are we might as well win.”
That has been the focus of the Longhorns, at least through the first two games. What its close victories have shown is that Texas “belongs” right where it landed in the postseason. Also evident through the clutch play shown in victories over South Dakota State and Xavier is how close UT was to being good enough to be a part of the NCAA Tournament.
The crowd for Sunday’s win at the Erwin Center was announced at 3,204, nearly twice as many as showed up March 19 for the first round win against South Dakota State.
Sunday’s win over Xavier, a tall and tough Big East team that might have been the second-best team in this tournament, was a good one. It showcased the talents of senior Kerwin Roach II, one of the players who led the Longhorns through the regular season until his suspension with five games remaining, which ultimately contributed significantly to the determination of his team's ultimate postseason event.
Roach scored a team-high 21 points to lead the Longhorns while converting 6 of 13 shots from the floor, including both of his shots from 3-point range, adding eight rebounds and six assists. As good as his game was, Roach’s ineptitude at the free throw line (he made just 7 of 15) almost sunk Texas.
“I love (my teammates),” Roach said afterward. “They kept my head in it. It’s easy to focus on the bad things that’s going on in a game, like missing free throws. But at the end, they had my back and I had theirs, and we stayed in it.”
Four of the team’s youthful core — guard Courtney Ramey and forward Gerald Liddell, both freshmen, and forward Jericho Sims and guard Jase Febres, both sophomores — also made crucial contributions, a sign that Texas will have good players with which to grow next season and beyond.
For Sims, who was expected to be a key player for Texas this year but was tentative and eventually passed for playing time by freshman Jaxson Hayes, the win over Xavier had observers shaking their heads over what could have been ... and happy about what might still be.
Sims racked up 11 points, seven rebounds (four of them on the offensive end) and a pair of blocks in the win, his best production since scoring 14 points Dec. 5 against VCU.
“Jericho was great,” Smart said. “The way we want him to play is with a relentless approach. The balls he kept alive were huge. (I'm) proud of him. This obviously has been a tough year for him with a lot of ups and downs and challenging days and weeks. He’s getting better and better, and that’s big for our team.”
Febres tallied 17 points, shooting 5-for-8 from beyond the arc, while Ramey recorded 17 points and a career-high eight rebounds.
“NIT, March Madness ... regardless, if you’re still playing in March, every single game you go out there, if you’re a competitor, you’re going to want to win,” Febres said.
Liddell, who rarely saw the floor in the regular season, contributed tough defense and high-energy plays in six first-half minutes, the most he’s been on the court since playing seven minutes in the season opener against Eastern Illinois.
“Liddell is coming. He’s making a lot of progress,” Smart said. “He is still finding his way in terms of exactly how to play. It’s such a different game for him than it was a year ago in high school.”
With the victory over Xavier, the Longhorns (18-16) guaranteed that they will have a winning record in their uneven campaign. If Texas wins out, it will finish with 21 wins – and that certainly sounds a lot better than the 16-16 mark with which the Longhorns started the NIT.
“We can still finish the season claiming ourselves as NIT champions, which wasn’t our goal,” Ramey said. “We wanted to be NCAA champions, but hey, that’s the next best thing in our eyes. So we need to keep winning.”
Fourth-seeded Colorado punched its ticket for the next round with a 76-60 victory Monday over eighth-seeded Norfolk State in Boulder.
The Buffaloes (23-12) went 10-8 in Pac-12 play this season and finished tied for fourth in the league standings. They have won 12 of their past 15 games and will be coming to Austin ready to shoot down their longtime rivals.
“It's a good sign for our program when you win a game by 16 tonight at home and you feel a sense of disappointment,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “We weren't at our best (in the win over Norfolk State), more so from an emotional standpoint than a physical standpoint or even an execution standpoint. We just weren't sharp offensively.”
The Buffaloes’ 23 wins tie for the third-most in program history, with all four of those seasons coming under Boyle.
“We got the win and we live to see another day,” Boyle said. “It's about surviving and advancing this time of year, and thank goodness we are.”
Tickets are still available for the big game, with access to the Erwin Center just $14 for reserved tickets and $12 for GA tickets available at TexasSports.com/tickets, by calling 512-471-3333, or by visiting the Erwin Center box office.
Parking is available for $10 in either the Health Center Garage (1601 Trinity Street) or Trinity Garage (1815 Trinity Street).
Should the Longhorns advance they will move on to play in the NIT Semifinals April 2 at Madison Square Garden.