Texas heads into NCAA tournament with clean slate

Akshay Mirchandani

Shaka Smart and the Longhorns sat in their meeting room in Oklahoma City taking in the first day of March Madness.

They watched No. 13 UNC-Wilmington hang with a perennial title contender in No. 4 Duke. The Blue Devils won by just eight points. Texas also took notice of rival No. 5 Baylor falling to No. 12 Yale. It all served as a harsh reminder.

“I think the seeding goes out the window,” Smart said. “Anyone that doesn't believe that, then they learn the hard way.”

The No. 6 Longhorns will try to avoid Baylor’s fate when they play No. 11 Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament first round Friday.

Smart is no stranger to upsets, but has usually been on the other side of them. He and Virgina Commonwealth University shocked team after team en route to the Final Four in 2011. Even if Texas is favored to win Friday, Smart said the same principles apply.

“The same things go into winning at VCU that go into winning at Texas,” Smart said. “You try to create a group of guys that's connected around a common goal.”

Unfortunately for the Longhorns, they have no momentum to speak of. Texas has lost two of its last three games, including a 30-point clunker to Kansas and a disappointing loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament.

But Friday provides a fresh start.

“At this point in the year, anybody can beat anybody, and we know that,” senior guard Javan Felix said. “Us, as older guys on the team, we're just trying to make sure that we put everything we have into this one game.”

Northern Iowa, on the other hand, has plenty of momentum. The Panthers have won 12 out of their last 13 games and, like Texas, have a signature win over North Carolina to their name.

The good news for Texas is Smart is familiar with the Panthers, having played them three times during his VCU tenure.

“We know they are a great team,” senior forward Connor Lammert said. “They are shooters, they have a great point guard and they do the little things really well, and that's something that we've been looking at and thinking about different ways to attack their defense.”

The Longhorns could get a big lift in the form of senior center Cameron Ridley. The big man returned to action in the Big 12 Tournament for two minutes, but only mustered two points against Baylor. Smart said he could play up to 20 minutes against NIU.

“I don't want to end my college career so early,” Ridley said. “But I mean nobody does want to play their last game. It would mean a lot to me if we got to keep playing."

A second round matchup with Texas A&M could await Texas if it advances. But, as they learned from watching the madness today, nothing is a guarantee in March.

“Hopefully, if you really look closely, you realize it's not about what league the team came from,” Smart said. “It's about what they do on the court.”

No. 6 Texas Longhorns vs. No. 11 Northern Iowa Panthers

  • Tipoff: 8:50 p.m. CDT
  • TV: TBS
  • Radio (Austin area): 104.9 FM