NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Country and rock music echo through the streets of downtown Nashville as basketball fans previously dispersed across the nation flock together to Bridgestone Arena for a weekend full of March Madness.
For many Texas players, this will be their first rodeo. The Longhorns were devoid of college basketball’s biggest stage last March, but head coach Shaka Smart powered his young roster to 19 wins, drawing a 10-seed in the 68-team bracket. Now, the third-year head coach is searching for his first win in the tournament since stepping into the job in Austin back in 2015.
Assuming junior shooting guard Eric Davis Jr. does not play, junior swingman Kerwin Roach II is responsible for all 12 total minutes of tournament experience in Texas’ supply. But what Texas (19–14) lacks in experience, it makes up for in its formidable frontcourt duo of two newcomers — junior power forward Dylan Osetkowski and freshman center Mo Bamba, both ready to guide Texas to its first tournament victory since 2014.
“You look at some of the Texas greats like KD (Kevin Durant) and T.J. Ford and the legacy they left on the program is mainly based on what they did in March,” Bamba said. “The opportunity and the platform is there for me now. It's just my time to seize it.”
Bamba, who has been battling a toe injury for several weeks, claims he is “100 percent” for the Round of 64 contest against 7-seed Nevada (27–7) after playing just 14 minutes in Texas’ two-game Big 12 Tournament run. The NBA Draft hopeful is poised for a productive day against the mismatched Wolf Pack. Bamba stands 7-feet tall, while Nevada doesn’t boast a single player on its roster above the height of 6-foot-7.
“When that ball goes up in the air, (having something to prove is) what it's really about,” Smart said. “And (Bamba’s) very motivated. One of the things that we've tried to help him understand this season is some of the guys you're going up against on a night in, night out basis, they're a lot better than maybe you thought they were coming in.”
Texas cannot afford to overlook the higher-seeded, regular season Mountain West champion Nevada, who fell victim to a 90-73 thrashing from San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament. The Wolf Pack operate a high-octane, quick-tempoed offense, ranking 17th in the nation scoring 83.1 points per game. Nevada shoots the three-ball at a much higher rate (39.8 percent) than Texas (31.5), so Friday afternoon’s clash on the hardwood will be a struggle between differentiating styles.
“We like to say we're cosmetically pleasing at times, getting the ball up the floor as fast as we can and spacing out,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “Having said that, we've got to be better than them for one game, for 40 minutes. But yeah, they're long and we're not.”
Nevada presents several challenges for the Longhorns, one of which includes guarding the duo of brothers Caleb and Cody Martin. The identical twins combine for 32.7 points, 11.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. Shaka Smart attempted to recruit the two during his VCU tenure, but the twins instead committed to NC State, before transferring west and landing in Reno.
“The challenges that they present, they're extremely versatile,” Smart said. “They play every position for (Nevada) because of the way they play. But both of them, their natural position is kind of small forward, big wing. That's one spot we don't have.”
Smart continued on how vital the twins’ contributions are to the current state of Nevada basketball, claiming their numbers would be in the rafters had they come to VCU.
“Caleb is a phenomenal scorer. He's always been wired to score. He's extremely confident. He really gets going. His first step is very, very fast,” Smart said. “Cody is as versatile as there is in college basketball. He literally can do anything you ask a guy to do on the court, rebound, defend, play point guard, initiate offense, shoot, drive, post up. Whatever you need.”
But Smart will play the cards he was dealt to counter Nevada’s quickness, including freshman point guard Matt Coleman. Coleman’s development from November to present day has been noteworthy, and plenty of pressure will be on the 20-year old freshman to ensure Texas’ backcourt does enough to advance past Nevada and earn a ticket to the second round against Cincinnati or Georgia State on Sunday.
“As a point guard, I always want to find ways to get my big fellas involved here,” Coleman said. “So I'm going to do everything I can to always make sure their presence is felt offensively and defensively. If it's giving them the ball, making them run the floor, just getting them involved.”
Despite the team’s status as a 10-seed, the Longhorns are already dreaming big of what their 18th tournament appearance in 20 years could culminate to — a trip to San Antonio for the Final Four. Texas’ road to the Final Four starts Friday at 3:30 p.m.
“Personally, I would love to have that feeling of being a freshman, going all the way to the Final Four,” Coleman said. “That's what you dream of. You dream of playing in March and having an opportunity to actually be here is why not make the best of it?”