Texas built strong bond to survive turmoil, hit March stride
DES MOINES, Iowa — The Texas Longhorns have only one player who has been around longer than two years, a unique roster shaped by super seniors who showed up through the transfer portal and true freshmen who came to the program the traditional way.
Still, try finding a team in this NCAA Tournament with better chemistry.
Strong relationships can form quickly, and the Longhorns sure needed theirs to be secure on Dec. 12. That's when former coach Chris Beard was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge. He was fired three weeks later when the school determined he was “unfit” to lead the program. The charge has since been dropped against Beard, who was hired this week as the new coach at Mississippi.
“I think a lot of people like to go back to December because of what transpired, but this group and the specialness of this team and our bond did start in the summertime,” leading scorer Marcus Carr said. “It started with us working together.”
Interim coach Rodney Terry saw it, too.
“We spent a lot of time encouraging our guys to spend time with themselves off the court, and it wasn't really — to be honest — coach-driven. It was player-driven in terms of those guys spending time with one another off the court, and I think when you’re able to do that, that carries over into the start of your season,” Terry said on Wednesday, when the No. 2 seed Longhorns were preparing to play Colgate in a first-round game in the Midwest Region.
Carr, Timmy Allen, Sir'Jabari Rice, Christian Bishop and Brock Cunningham are all in their fifth or sixth year of college basketball. Dylan Disu is in his fourth year, giving the Longhorns six players 22 and older. Carr (Pittsburgh, Minnesota), Allen (Utah), Rice (New Mexico State), Bishop (Creighton) and sophomore Tyrese Hunter (Iowa State) all transferred to Texas to play for Beard. The Longhorns are loaded with the depth and talent to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2003.
“Twenty years from now, I will still be connected with these guys and we will always remember this moment, because we faced so much this year but we stuck together,” freshman Dillon Mitchell said. "This is something I’m blessed to be a part of.”
The Big 12 Tournament champion Longhorns (26-8) will have their hands full with a Colgate team that gave Wisconsin a first-round scare as a No. 14 seed last year. The No. 15 seed Red Raiders (26-8) are the second-best shooting team in the nation at 51.4% behind only Gonzaga.
WILL SASSER BE BACK?
Houston's leading scorer Marcus Sasser will be a game-time decision when the No. 1 seed Cougars face Northern Kentucky in Birmingham, Alabama.
Averaging 17.1 points per game, Sasser suffered a groin injury last Saturday in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament against Cincinnati. He didn’t play the following day against Memphis, which upset the Cougars (31-3) to claim the AAC championship.
Houston's resume was secure enough for the top seed despite the loss, and now the spotlight is on Sasser's recovery. Even with his uncertain status, the Cougars are an 18½-point favorite on Thursday night against No. 16 seed Norse, according to FanDuel Sportsbook odds.
Coach Kelvin Sampson could play it safe this weekend and give Sasser some more rest. If the Cougars win, they'll face the Iowa-Auburn winner.
“He did some things today. Broke a sweat. Did some shooting drills. He didn’t go full speed. So that’s the update,” Sampson said on Wednesday. “It’s one of those infamous game-time decisions, I guess. We’ll see. I mean, if it had been up to Marcus he might have tried to play Sunday. Sometimes as a coach you have to save them from themselves. I’m not going to jeopardize he or our team, but Marcus and I have the kind of relationship where he will do what I ask him to do.”
The Horizon League Tournament champion Norse (22-12) are making their third NCAA appearance in seven seasons of eligibility for the tournament, after the required four-year reclassification period following the move up from Division II. They have yet to win an NCAA Tournament game.
“This is the goal. This is where we want to be every year,” coach Darrin Horn said. “We played our best basketball down the stretch.”
The Auburn-Iowa matchup will feature two different brands of basketball on the court — and a similarly intense style of coaching on the sideline.
The Tigers’ Bruce Pearl was asked about a CBSSports.com story highlighting the matchup as especially intriguing “if you’re into seeing coaches act like children.” The article also predicted the over/under on technical fouls called on Pearl and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery “at a cautious 1.5.”
Pearl smiled at the assessment, but took the under.
“I’ve got a couple of grandkids, and I love their energy and I love their passion and every now and then they throw a fit,” he said. “You still love them, right? I think it’s one of the best matchups because of the quality of the teams and how competitive the game could be. Fran wears it on his sleeve also, but we respect the game.”
The Tigers (20-12) rank fifth nationally in holding opponents to 28.8% in 3-point shooting. The Hawkeyes (19-13) are averaging 80.2 points per game, 18th-best.
Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry guided the Nittany Lions in his second season to the Big Ten Tournament championship game, where they lost by two points to East No. 1 seed Purdue. That has made him a hot name on the market, with Notre Dame and Georgetown mentioned on the rumor mill as interested programs with vacancies.
When asked directly on Wednesday if he would be at Penn State next season, he was non-committal. Out of respect to his players, he politely declined to discuss the possibility of other opportunities.
“We played four games in four days and our backs have been against the wall for three weeks, and now this is my first time in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach," he said. "I don’t have time to focus on anything else other than that.”
Penn State (22-13) will play Texas A&M (25-9) on Thursday, with the winner facing the Texas-Colgate winner on Saturday. Despite finishing second in the Southeastern Conference in the regular season and reaching the championship game of the league tournament, the Aggies are a No. 7 seed. Nonconference losses to Murray State and Wofford, though months ago, didn't help their resume.
So was the slight snub from the selection committee a source of extra motivation?
“It’s not needed at all,” guard Wade Taylor IV said. “I was talking to them. We’re just happy to be here. It’s a blessing to be here, from where we started to where we are now. Just hearing our name get called, that’s more than enough for what this team has been through.”
AP Sports Writers Paul Newberry and John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama, and Eric Olson in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.