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We’re dancin’ dancin’ dancin’. After an odd season that featured 14 losses, leukemia and an FBI scandal, Texas squeezed into the 64-team Tournament field as a 10 seed and will face the 7th-seeded Nevada Wolfpack (27-7) in the opening round. Awaiting the winner will be no. 2 seed Cincinnati, assuming they don’t pull an Arizona against Georgia State.
Watching this team down the stretch felt like being on a crappy rollercoaster, but the way the ‘Horns ended the regular season inspires confidence, particularly when noticing that the inspired play came without Mo Bamba. Everyone stepped up against West Virginia, as 4 out of 5 starters dropped 15+ points for the first time all season. The four-point Texas Tech loss in the conference tourney featured a Jacob Young explosion–the sophomore has flashed a microwave skillset all season and finally went off for 29 points and 6 threes. Bottom line–we saw guys step up and play clutch basketball down the stretch and that momentum should carry into Friday. Plus, The Long One is completely healthy and ready to play all 40 if need be.
This is all nice, but Nevada is damn good, and can score on anybody. You don’t get to 27-7 by accident. Stylistically, they’re Texas’ antithesis–check out where they rank nationally (stats per Kenpom):
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Nevada is smaller, faster and has more experience. The Longhorns have no experience, are massive inside, and play at a sloth’s pace. It’s a fascinating clash, but one Texas will win, contingent on these factors:
Nevada gets buckets, but nobody on that side has seen a force like the Venus Flytrap. After the Alabama contest in December, I wrote about Mo looking like he had turned a corner in terms of the nuances of verticality and shot-altering, but he continues to fall into bad fouling habits late in games. It’s important to remember that he’s still a freshman and development doesn’t take a linear upwards trajectory, particularly for 7-footers. In the biggest game of his life, Bamba will need to keep his feet on the ground and arms in the air to keep himself on the floor. He’s the anchor for one of the best defenses in America, and any time he spends on the pine is a window for the Wolfpack to pounce.
Roach has emerged big time this year, firmly stepping into the shoes vacated by Andrew Jones and adding to his offensive game to complement his elite defense. That said, he’s been ice to close out the season, with shooting splits of 32/29/68% over the final 10 games. We all know the defense will be there, and man, can he defend. But this is the NCAA Tournament and he’s trying to get himself drafted this summer. Snoop simply has to get buckets and do so efficiently for Texas to keep pace.
The freshman has come on down the stretch, but it’s still been a topsy-turvy campaign. When he’s humming, he can drag Texas to wins. His 22 point outings against ranked teams Oklahoma (then #12) and West Virginia proved to be the difference in both games, and he can take over down the stretch. Conversely, there are times when he’ll vanish. The floor general needs to control the game, take care of the ball, and knock down shots Friday. This game will be a phenomenal experience for him–with the futures of Bamba, Roach and Andrew Jones uncertain, Coleman represents the future of the program, and exposing him early to March’s bright lights will only benefit.
Here’s a pair of pups thrust into this spot due to the diagnosis of Jones and the suspension of Eric Davis Jr. (maligned as he is, it’d be nice to have ED available for this game). Febres, who has been starting since Jones was lost, is a natural sniper but is perhaps a year away from being consistent and productive. Young, fresh off his Tech explosion, is the more confident player right now and hopefully rides his hotstreak into Nashville. We all know Texas is a horrible shooting team–getting shotmaking from one or both of the young off-guards will be essential to providing Bamba and Dylan Osetkowski airspace on the interior.
These are the swing elements for Texas against Nevada. Jericho Sims almost got his own section, but provided he’s ready for the moment, we know the type of production he’ll bring (I’m going to give Jericho a feature this offseason, as a four-game surge heading into the Tech contest has me reevaluating his ceiling). Ditto for Dylan Osetkowski–we know we’ll get volume scoring and awful defense that Bamba hopefully can cover for. Another potential wildcard is Shaka Smart, who I’ve shredded all year. While you can’t magically teach somebody what a functional basketball offense resembles, it’s worth noting that the man did make a Final Four run. For a young team with virtually no Tourney experience, the fact that their head coach has been there and done it certainly can’t hurt.
When you have a pair of teams this even on paper, you have a game that may go down to the buzzer. Most hoops fans will be watching with a beer and a smile–I’ll be pacing around my living room, biting my nails to the whites. In Bamba we trust.
Junior Economics major at the University of Texas. Always willing to contribute to other sites and am seeking additional writing opportunities.