A home victory vs. Rice earned us a trip to Boise, Idaho, for a 2nd round matchup vs. Boise State in front of a couple thousand people. No chance at a National Championship Family and friends didn’t care to travel to it. There was no TV coverage. There was no swell in alumni pride and support. No “One Shining Moment.”
March Madness for us that year had an entirely different meaning… it just made us mad. After taking part in the NCAA Tournament the year before, I was on a team at Wisconsin-Milwaukee that was left out of it and forced to play in another postseason tournament. And it was miserable.
Coming off our first conference championship and first birth in the NCAA Tournament in almost 20 years, we had really high expectations for ourselves that season. Our fans had been rejuvenated, our alumni found a new sense of pride, and thus, even their expectations had risen. Prior to and during the season, with the talent we had, we were positive we’d be in the tournament at the end of the year again. However, we didn’t get it done. It was one of the huge let downs of my career. Despite the numerous NCAA Tournaments I’ve participated in, Sweet Sixteens and Elite Eights I have and will advance to, I’ll never forget that year we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.
Just like being able to put on the Orange and White jersey, or to walk in to my office at UT every day, participating in the NCAA Tournament is a privilege, not a right. Being selected for the tournament is earned, not given to you. OR, it’s lost, not taken from you. This week we will earn our postseason destiny. A couple wins, and we’ll be playing in the greatest tournament in the world. A couple losses and we’ll be… well, I don’t even want to think about that.
For the first time yesterday, Coach Pearl mentioned the stakes for which we will be playing this week. He briefly mentioned that our NCAA Tournament lives are at stake, but quickly followed that statement up with instructions on the process we must take beginning with the next few days to ensure we earn the opportunity to participate in the tournament. In addition to the intangible things, Coach discussed that we must get back to creating the tempo that we want to create. We need to be the aggressor and stop letting teams dictate what we do! For instance, numerous times this year, (UConn, Mississippi State, Georgia, to name a few) guys who, on the scouting report, were not very good shooters or defenders have had a great impact on our losses because guys hear “non-shooter” and they think, “Ok, I don’t need to guard him. I can relax.” That is not the case. This is high-major basketball. We must MAKE them miss; we can’t hope they miss.
It’s no secret, South Carolina has struggled offensively at times this year. Many of their guys are struggling with their outside shot but are not shy to take them. Knowing that going into the game, there are two ways we can look at that. We can either rest on defense and hope they miss as we wait to get back on offense. Or, we can get down in a stance and dictate their offense by being the aggressor. One way is easier than the other. Which will we take?
Offensively last year, we struggled at South Carolina vs. their multiple defenses on our way to 11 turnovers in the first 9 minutes of the first half. One-hand passes and catches, over-dribbling and always trying to hit the home run had us down for a large portion of that game. However, when we executed our stuff and again, dictated their defense by urgently moving the ball and our bodies to where we wanted to move it, we were successful. If they press us or drop back to their zone, we must look to attack. We must be smart and under control, but I’m sick of seeing us practice at a high tempo and then be on our heels come game time.
Lastly, how will we handle all this “We are better on the road” talk? To me, it’s just talk. Are we now going to show up to South Carolina with a false sense of security in our minds and knowing they are in last place in the league and think just because of those things they are going to lay down for us? Absolutely not! They beat Florida and Arkansas. Did we? I don’t care if we were going to play a grade-school team, we are in no position to take any team, game or even ONE stinking play lightly. Those thoughts better not even enter our mind. I just want to win. If we ALL (coaches, players, etc,) do what we are asked to do, to the best of our ability, in preparation for the game and throughout the 40 minutes on Thursday night, I am confident we will take one more step toward achieving one of our goals.