Note: Laken Litman is sharing takeaways on the action throughout the Big 12 Tournament.
If you go to the Texas men’s basketball roster page on the UT athletics website, you’ll see a horizontal photo of all 14 players walking together arm in arm on their home court. At first glance, it’s just a nice team photo. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the picture is indicative of how close and connected this particular group of guys is and have been all season.
The Longhorns have been forced to come together amid all kinds of adversity this season. From their coach Chris Beard getting arrested on domestic violence charges and later fired, to one of their best players in Timmy Allen having to sit out of the Big 12 tournament with a lower leg injury, they’ve figured out how to persevere and deal with it all.
It’s that kind of character that will keep serving Texas well this March. Friday, the Longhorns took care of TCU, beating the Horned Frogs 66-60 in a semifinal game that came down to the wire. Now No. 2 seed Texas will play No. 1 seed Kansas in the Big 12 tournament championship game on Saturday. These two teams faced each other one week ago in Austin. Texas won 75-59, but Kansas had already clinched the league’s regular-season title before tip.
Texas had to beat TCU, a team with which it split regular-season matchups, without Allen and all of his production. The senior forward is the team’s leading rebounder (171 boards this season, averaging 5.5 per game), is second in assists (109) and the third-leading scorer (10.5 ppg). Gutted that he couldn’t be on the court with his teammates, Allen stood on the sideline throughout the game as the Longhorn’s No. 1 cheerleader. He never sat down, always on his feet trying to keep energy levels high.
In his absence, seniors Dylan Disu and Christian Bishop combined for 30 points on 11 of 16 shooting and 15 rebounds. Disu had a powerful block that turned into a Marcus Carr layup on the other end to give Texas a 62-56 lead with 2:02 to play. Carr finished with 10 points and Tyrese Hunter had nine. It wasn’t Texas’ best game of the year – it made two three-pointers and Sir’Jabari Rice was uncharacteristically cold from the field, scoring just five points on 2-of-12 shooting and was 0-of-7 from three – but they’re a gritty team and found a way to win.
Kansas looked like a NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in its win over Iowa State, but might not have senior guard Kevin McCullar for the conference final. He’s been battling back spasms through the Big 12 tournament and had to come out of the semifinal game after aggravating it. Kansas is also playing without head coach Bill Self, who underwent a procedure at the University of Kansas Health System this week.
Who can handle adversity better? Who has the more tight-knit team? Those are questions that will be answered in Saturday’s conference championship game.
Game 1: Kansas 71, Iowa State 58
As if Kansas wasn’t already motivated enough to defend its national title, players and coaches are galvanized even more and want to win it all for their coach, Bill Self.
Just before the first Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal game tipped off Thursday, Kansas announced that Self, the program’s legendary coach, would miss the game against West Virginia due to an illness. The Jayhawks beat the Mountaineers 78-61 under longtime assistant coach Norm Roberts. Later, the university said that Self would miss the remainder of the Big 12 Tournament because he was receiving care at University of Kansas Health System following a procedure.
Kansas shared a statement released by the hospital with an update on Self’s health, noting that the coach did not have a heart attack.
“Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steve Stites wants to clarify that Coach Self did not suffer a heart attack as reported by some media,” the hospital said in a statement. “He arrived at the emergency department last night and underwent a standard procedure that went well. He is expected to make a full recovery.”
Self was able to speak with his team Friday morning ahead of the Jayhawks’ Big 12 Tournament semifinal matchup against Iowa State, keeping the mood light in hopes his team would play worry-free basketball.
“It was great to talk to him, hear his voice,” forward Jalen Wilson remarked. “He said just go out there, continue to play the right way and continue to play Kansas basketball.”
The Jayhawks did just that as Wilson scored a game-high 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead Kansas to an impressive 71-58 victory over Iowa State and a spot in Saturday’s conference title game.
“With him not being here, it brought us together even more through the adversity we’ve been through the entire season,” Wilson said. “It’s bigger than us. It’s just another moment to prove how tight this group is and no matter what’s going on, we’re a team, and we’re family.”
Self’s health quickly became a national storyline – and likely will remain one throughout the NCAA Tournament. Once word got around Kansas City, the site of the Big 12 Tournament, other league coaches addressed the situation and sent positive vibes Self’s way.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins knows what it’s like to have a health scare. He suffered a heart attack in 2002 and in 2017, when he collapsed on the sideline during a game when his defibrillator went off.
“I think it would be really hard for Bill this time of year [to miss games] because they’re trying to make another run for a national championship,” said Huggins, who is friends with Self. “Him being in the state that he’s in now, I would think that would be very difficult.”
Texas interim head coach Rodney Terry opened his press conference Thursday with a comment about Self following the Longhorns’ win over Oklahoma State.
“He’s an elder statesman in this league,” Terry said, “a guy we have a lot of respect for, and we just pray for a good recovery for him today.”
Roberts, who will serve as KU’s coach until further notice, has coached with Self for the bulk of his career. He’s been at Kansas for 12 seasons, but was on Self’s previous staffs at Illinois, Tulsa and Oral Roberts. He also coached the Jayhawks’ first four games of the 2022-23 season when KU placed a self-imposed four-game suspension on Self for his possible role in an NCAA infractions case. Kansas went 4-0.
After Kansas’ win over West Virginia on Thursday, Roberts was asked how he’s been able to compartmentalize and focus on the games given their close friendship. He evoked a line that Self often uses, which is to “focus on what you can control,” which seemed to work for Roberts and the players.
“We always talk about next man up,” Roberts said. “You know, faces change, expectations don’t. That’s our motto. That’s what we live by.”
Kansas will now set its sights on Saturday’s Big 12 title game, where they will play No. 7 Texas in a much-anticipated top-10 showdown. The Jayhawks split their regular-season series with the Longhorns, notching an 88-80 home win back on Feb. 6, and then losing on the road in their meeting earlier this month, 75-59.
Kansas is expected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins next week.
While there’s no timetable for Self’s return, Roberts said the coach is in good spirits and “already wants to watch film.”
She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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