KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Squeeze 'em, hug 'em, make 'em your own, after 25 years of frustration in the Big 12 Tournament Texas is something close to a loveable underdog.
The Longhorns' coach fought COVID-19 and was on the hot seat as recently as February. Their leading scorer overcame leukemia. One workout was run in the middle of the pandemic with only two players. Who cares if Texas had to play only two games to win the Big 12 Tournament for the first time in its quarter-century of existence? A win is a win in a postseason that continues to walk a bit of a high-wire act, playing through a COVID-19 car wash without getting wet.
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Please, no snide remarks about entitlement for the Texas athletes with the best of everything inside the nation's richest athletic department. Not this time. They earned this 91-86 win over Oklahoma State to grab the conference's automatic bid and respect from those used to their underachievement.
Sure, the Horns got the kind of rest no one wants. They advanced to Saturday's championship game Friday while sitting in their hotel, because of Kansas' COVID-19 issues. Then the Horns unleashed one of their best offensive performances in, well years.
Senior Matt Coleman II (30 points) and post Jericho Sims (21 points) each had career highs. That is significant on a veteran team heading to the NCAA Tournament. They have played at Texas a combined eight years.
In a sport where it seems little is permanent, these Horns are experienced. That meant something to a program that has seldom fulfilled its promise in the recent past.
"I just cried. They were tears of joy," Coleman said. "I said, 'Coach, this is what we've been saying since Day One. It took four years to make it happen, to take a step in the right direction. You did this, you built a culture here. I'm proud to be part of it. You built a culture here.'
"Feeling his love, man, is deeper than the game of basketball."
On Feb. 6 the Horns lost at Oklahoma State, their fourth defeat in five games. Once again, the walls were closing in. Smart has never achieved the promise he brought with him from VCU six years ago, having led the Rams to the Final Four in 2011. That was also the last time the Horns were in the Big 12 Tournament championship game.
But Smart – and the Horns – accomplished something special this week in this muted conference tournament. There was no fan fest that usually closes Grand Boulevard outside the nearby Power & Light District. Capacity for usually raucous T-Mobile Center was limited to 20% for obvious reasons. Even during the championship game it seemed like the Cowboys had more fans.
It all came together after that extra day of rest. The 6-foot-10 Sims could not be stopped around the basket. The Horns had at least a half-dozen dunks as they matched not only Oklahoma State's intensity but its fast-break transition. Along with his 21 points, Sims ended with 14 rebounds, one off his career high.
"This is finally coming together," said Sims, who came to Texas from Minneapolis, a prospect just outside the top 50. "Everything is clicking."
Coleman was the tournament's most outstanding player having already beaten Texas Tech in the opener with a couple of free throws with 1.8 seconds left. He is another senior who bought into Smart four years ago. Coleman was a top 30 prospect whose previous high was 25 as a freshman.
"At the end of the day he had to decide between us and Duke," Smart said. "When you're coming out of high school and a program like that wants you and a coach like that [wants you], it takes a special type of guy to say, 'No, I want to do something different.' "
The loyalty goes both ways.
"People shit on [Shaka]," Coleman said. "He takes the heat for those bad years Texas had. I want this for him because he's been through a lot."
Andrew Jones' story is well known. On Jan. 9, the redshirt-junior hit the game-winning shot against West Virginia three years to the day Smart told the team the guard had been diagnosed with leukemia. Jones didn't have one of his best games Saturday (1 for 8, 13 points) but he fit the label being applied to these Horns.
"Oklahoma State was playing so well, a lot of people said we were the underdog," Smart said.
They were. They had to be. Smart revealed on Feb. 1 he'd had "significant" COVID-19 symptoms. The Horns had their own issues with the virus. The day before he conducted his first practice in 19 days with all 11 scholarship players. Shortly before being diagnosed, Smart ran a practice with only two players.
"Personally just trying to focus on the people around me, instead of the circumstances," Smart said. "I knew that our guys and our staff and my family, they need a certain energy and a certain vibe and spirit from me."
Consider Texas greats such as Kevin Durant and T.J. Ford never won a conference tournament. Third-seeded Texas (19-7) became the first team from the state of Texas to win the Big 12 Tournament. It also became the first team from the old Big Eight not to win it.
Oklahoma State (20-8) played for the third consecutive day after playing six top-10 teams in the previous 19 days. being three straight top-10 ranked teams. After trailing by 10 halftime the Cowboys cut it to two at 52-50. But in a game that was called extremely close, Texas at one point made 15 straight free throws shooting 36 for the game.
"I can't imagine another team in the country that had a tougher stretch than we did the last three weeks," Cowboys coach Mike Boynton said. "I'm excited to see what we can do when we get a little rest."
Texas had more than enough rest. Who knows what would have happened if the Horns had to play the Jayhawks in the semis? Taking nothing away from the Horns, they took a blow Friday that Oklahoma State couldn't.
Smart took the opportunity, asking for a practice that would resemble a game. The energy carried over to Saturday.
Now the question becomes how far the Horns or any team from the Big 12 can proceed in the Big Dance. Seven teams from the conference are likely to make it to Indy. Regular-season champion Baylor was dealt its second loss by the Cowboys on Friday in what still stands as one of the biggest upsets of the season. Bob Huggins and his Mountaineers will get up in your business. Oklahoma has beaten several top 10 teams. Texas Tech lost the last national championship game played back in 2019.
But Texas has the most momentum and along with the best huggy, feely story.
"I don't know about underdog," Texas forward Brock Cunningham said. "I just know we're confident in our ability."
For those of you who forgot the ultimate underdog story, in 2011, Smart's VCU finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Conference, lost in the conference championship game then went through the First Four to reel off five wins in a row to get to the Final Four.
Before taking the Texas job, four years later Smart had led VCU to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments. This season marks his third Big Dance in five seasons. (Texas won the NIT in 2019. The NCAA Tournament was cancelled in 2020.)
That is arguably a picture of underachievement at a school with the best of everything. But wading through the Big 12 will test any program. There was a hint this Texas team was special on Jan. 2 when the Horns won at Allen Fieldhouse 84-59. That was the worst home loss of Bill Self's career at Kansas and tied the worst loss for the Jayhawks at Allen.
"Someone asked me, 'What do you say to them [who criticized you]?" Smart said. "One of the most impressive men I meant was Augie Garrido."
Texas' legendary baseball coach died in 2018.
"He once said in a similar situation, 'This is a gift to them,' Smart said. "That's kind of how I feel. This is a gift to everyone."
Now the underHorns, er, underdogs are looking forward to a march through March.