During the first half of Texas’ game against Xavier, Kerwin Roach II wanted to let the Texas fans inside the Frank Erwin Center know that he cared. After sinking a layup despite being fouled at the rim, Roach turned toward the fans to his right, beat the letters in “Texas” across his chest and screamed for them to get fired up.
Scenes like the one with Roach transpired across the court during the Longhorns’ overtime victory against Xavier on Sunday. In an extremely physical game, Texas players were diving on the floor, taking charges and refusing to be beat down by a bigger team inside the paint. Players were yelling at one another and pumping up the fans in the crowd.
Despite the talk of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) being a consolation prize, the Longhorns have ditched that attitude altogether. Their win against the Musketeers was the product of good basketball, but more so, it was the result of the Longhorns playing with the energy they lost in the last week of their season.
“All 45 minutes, it was all about heart,” Roach said after the win. “You know, just coming into the game, we knew they were going to bully us. There were altercations on the floor, them trying to be physical and stuff like that. We just had to have a physical mentality and stand back up to them.”
The NIT used to stand for something significant in college basketball. But with the NCAA Tournament’s expansion and exhaustive television coverage, the NIT has become more of an afterthought with fans seeing it as the byproduct of a disappointing season.
Texas, however, doesn’t see it that way. The Longhorns see it as an invaluable opportunity to achieve something special in the postseason. And that motivation to prolong their season has seeped into an energized brand of basketball.
“Every win is a big time win, especially to keep our season going,” guard Courtney Ramey said. “I feel like we got some good juice right now, and we want to keep playing.”
Texas head coach Shaka Smart insists that performing well is a point of pride for his program. And if anyone knows about the struggle of keeping a team focused in this tournament, it’s him.
When Smart was an assistant coach at Clemson in 2007, his team qualified for the NIT after limping through ACC play. But that team refocused itself and ended up making it to New York City for the tournament final and finished second.
On Wednesday night, Smart will have a chance to return to the Big Apple should the Longhorns defeat Colorado in the NIT quarterfinals. While some may view that as a lesser accomplishment, the Longhorns don’t really care.
They’re focused on winning the tournament that’s ahead of them.
“If you don’t advance in the NIT, that’s the taste that you have in the mouth as a senior for the rest of your life … If you’re a returning player, for several months,” Smart said. “We have one more game until we make it to New York and the goal is to win the whole thing.”