KANSAS CITY, Mo. — And when all the FDUs and the Furmans and the Princetons had gone the way of the Purdues and the Virginias and the Arizonas, and when all the No. 1 seeds had gone home in this maddest of Madnesses, and when 68 teams had been whittled to eight, the highest seed standing as of Saturday morning, a tournament favorite, the hooping honcho, would be …
The Texas Longhorns?
That’s the Texas of the disquieting December when its head coach was arrested on a charge of felony domestic violence, the Texas of the firing of that coach the first week of the new year, the Texas which has played the past 29 games with an interim at the helm. It’s the program that lost to Abilene Christian in the first round in 2021, that had its coach leave immediately after for a “basketball-centric athletic department” (Marquette), that dwells in a football-shaped shadow even if some smart alecks might sneer that the school quit football 12 years ago.
It’s also the Texas that had to function for the last 38 minutes Friday night without the Big 12 tournament most valuable player, yet functioned like some joyous symphony as it led by 24 while ransacking a perfectly good Xavier by 83-71. It’s the last No. 2 seed going in a tournament shuddering and bereft of all its No. 1s. If you yearn to dislike Texas as people have done through time, and to insinuate there might be some entitlement involved, then don’t visit the locker room.
That room is pure charm, a runaway delight of cohesion and humor and just plain-old, big-old love.
“We really wanted to play for him,” guard Marcus Carr said of the injured forward Dylan Disu. “We knew how much this would mean for him. We got all emotional in there just knowing he wouldn’t be out there. We all knew the job we had to do for him.”
Since tournament play began, conference and NCAA, Disu had 11 points and 11 rebounds against Oklahoma State, 15 points and eight rebounds against TCU, 18 points and six rebounds against Kansas, 17 points and 10 rebounds against Colgate and 28 points and 10 rebounds against Penn State. A bone bruise and a leg cast took all that away, yet the team looked smashing, right down to the gasp of a half-court shot Timmy Allen banked in to close the first half and bloat the halftime lead to 42-25.
That’s the Allen the Longhorns (29-8) lacked while winning the Big 12 tournament.
They seem artful at adapting, maybe the utmost skill demanded by March.
They might need to adapt again with Disu questionable for the Midwest Region final against surging Miami, but at least they tend to adapt by the best means possible.
“We had a very difficult time running our offense,” Xavier Coach Sean Miller said, “which is a real testament to their defense because we’ve been able to score virtually every game we’ve played this year maybe other than once. Their pressure is something you can’t really simulate until you’re in the game with them. Their toughness, their experience. And then offensively they have great guard play, and you feel that as well. There are times when we started to score and then we had an equally hard time defending them.”
He said, “Look, I’ve watched them play Kansas twice recently, and when I saw how the game went, both games, you knew you were playing one of America’s best teams, and they were that today.”
In person, he said, “They were quicker (than on film).”
“They got really quick guys down there,” said Xavier’s Jack Nunge, who got 15 points but shot 6-for-19, “and I think they kind of sped me up and I was maybe rushing shots where I could have taken more time.”
Then, with Xavier guard Souley Boum, Longhorns interim coach Rodney Terry said, Tyrese Hunter “did a great job on Souley not letting him get comfortable, get to his sweet spot where he can score the basketball. Really made him uncomfortable for a better part of the first half.”
That discomfort clanged with 12 points for a player averaging 16.8.
The 6-foot-9 Disu did play for two minutes, grabbed one rebound, left, sat, stood, cheered, sat again, stood again, cheered again. “The last thing you want to do,” Terry said, “is put a young man out there who’s not ready to go full tilt.” In the locker room with that boot on his lower leg and one of those wires running into that boot, Disu said he wouldn’t rule out playing Sunday against the Hurricanes, but that it’s the kind of injury that can worsen dramatically if mistreated.
He reveled in the play of the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Christian Bishop, who stepped in and stepped up: 18 points, nine rebounds, 8-for-12 shooting, for a guy averaging 6.2 and 3.6 and 52 percent. “I mean,” said Hunter, who scored 19 points to lead the balanced bunch, “next guy is always ready from our bench and being deep. Coaches do a good job of preparing us for stuff like this in case stuff happens in a moment like this.”
In the next-man-up division, of course, there’s that coach, Terry, the 54-year-old former coach at Fresno State and UTEP and former assistant at Texas in the 2000s. His turn as interim helmsman began with an overtime win over Rice on Dec. 12, right after the break of the harrowing news about previous head coach Chris Beard. Texas is 22-7 since, enduring the ruthless Big 12, but its most compelling span has been the 7-0 of this telltale month, spiced with two blowouts of Kansas and umpteen player recommendations that Texas make the head coach permanent.
The giant heart he has lent those players showed Friday night when he began his postgame remarks by honoring Willie Cager, who died at 80 on March 19 and who played for the historic Texas Western team (nowadays UTEP) which won the 1966 national title. Just as Terry said of Cager, “Boy, no one loved basketball more than Willie,” one of the Texas players who loves basketball, loves his teammates and loves his interim coach, Carr, said of Terry, “He is my head coach.”
On they went, this fresh favorite, with love.