KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Dylan Disu sat sprawled out in a hallway outside the Texas locker room Saturday night. Braced against a wall, he checked his phone for the incoming love.
The No. 2 seed Longhorns had just advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 15 years. In their 71-66 victory vs. No. 10 seed Penn State, Disu scored a season-high 28 points and a lot of folks were thinking the same thing. It took a nearby reporter to ask it.
Where did that come from?
"It's been in here, man," said Disu, a senior forward. "It's just been hiding, that's all."
In where, exactly? In the locker room, in the Longhorns' hearts, in the air? Call it a burnt orange mojo that, at the moment, has no end. Mixed in with the flood of emotions, sweat and tears that followed the Horns' run to the Sweet 16 through Des Moines, Iowa, Texas basketball has sought to reidentify itself.
"This," guard Marcus Carr said, "is a workhorse team."
That was an offhand remark but also off brand, perhaps, for a large swath of UT athletics. The words "workhorse" and "Texas" have not appeared often in the same sentence in these clutch occasions.
"So I've heard," said Carr prior to Friday's game vs. No. 3 seed Xavier in a NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinal.
In that moment, Texas' leading scorer enabled a worn perception that may have started with Longhorns' football but found its way to basketball as well. You know, Texas athletes have the best of everything. Money pumped in didn't always mean championships were pumped out.
"We never heard that when I was here in the past," said Texas assistant Chris Ogden who played on the program's last Final Four team in 2003. "But there is a stigma with the brand – Texas -- that comes with that a little bit. That we're up in the white house on the hill.
"But I'll tell you this, the timid nor the weak, they don't make it here at Texas."
Not lately. What the Horns have fought through this season can't be scripted. The firing of former coach Chris Beard three months ago looms over everything. That alone threatened to reidentify Texas. It probably should have.
Instead, it made them stronger, rougher. It made them winners.
Before Dec. 12 when he was arrested, Beard was one of the most coveted, upwardly-mobile coaches in the country. After being charged with felony strangulation of his fiancee, Beard was eventually fired in early January. The charges were dropped in February.
Nonetheless, he was disgraced. He left no shame behind in the lockerroom.
In fact, there were several hints dropped by the Horns over last weekend that it suddenly became easier to play for interim coach Rodney Terry.
"The way our team evolved is totally different than how it would have evolved," Ogden said. "That's not a knock on one person or another."
"When adversity hits a lot of people you've got to make a decision," senior forward Christian Bishop said. "Either you lay down and give up or get up and keep pushing. I think it made us a better team."
Senior guard Timmy Allen said the hardships – both personal and the big one with the transition from Beard – helped the Horns.
"When hard things happen you either go like this [up] or you go like this [down]," Allen said gesturing. "We chose the better route."
Whatever the case, a sort of burden was lifted. Things changed so quickly and shockingly that, in a way, the Horns didn't have time to react. They are 21-7 under Terry, a 54-year-old basketball veteran. Sporting News named him national coach of the year.
"Being so in the middle of the season, it almost insulated us," Ogden said. "We just had to work the next day and win the next day and win the next game. In some ways, it almost helped us get through it."
Texas has long been a very good program, but like its football counterparts, somewhat underachieving. Even with Beard's departure, the program is running out of excuses at the same time it is crossing the threshold to national greatness.
The No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament was earned by finishing second in the Big 12 standings. Texas split with regular-season champion and since-departed No. 1 seed Kansas. In the space of eight days that included the Big 12 Tournament, Texas beat KU twice by a combined 36 points.
In a one-and-done world that was exacerbated by the transfer portal and one-time transfer rule, Texas has it all across the modern college basketball spectrum. The roster includes five transfers. Seven players returned from the 2021-22 team that won 21 games under Beard – the most at Texas in eight years – and lost in the second round. That has lent stability to a group that includes six players who are at least 22 years old. There are NBA teams that aren't that experienced.
There aren't many stories that are this rare. Terry is one of four UT staffers with a head coaching background. He now deserves the permanent job. There isn't much doubt about it. Given the journey – and the result to date – might as well call them the Longharms. They won't back down without a fight. In fact, good, old Texas swagger may be back.
"They didn't grow up in the [Big] 12," assistant Bob Donewald Jr. – one of those four former head coaches -- told the team before the Penn State game. "They (are) in that other conference [Big Ten] where you got a couple of nights off."
Carr, the leading scorer, is the only active Division I player with at least 2,300 career points, 700 assists and 500 rebounds. Guard Sir'Jabari Rice was the Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year.
The 6-foot-9 Disu has become a force in the post averaging 16.5 points in his last eight games. When the Penn State game came down to winning time, Terry was wise. He decided the game was going to be decided by going inside to Disu. After Texas trailed by three late, the Vanderbilt transfer drained three straight jumpers. The Horns were suddenly up by three and confident.
"We've been battle tested time and time again," Terry said. "This was nothing new. When we got down there, there was no shake, no bend."
Now comes time to consider keeping the band together. Ogden gave up a head-coaching gig at Texas-Arlington two years ago to join Beard. At one time, he had won the most games at Texas as a player (97). Terry himself left UTEP in 2021 as head coach despite having three years left on his contract to come back to Texas. He had previously worked nine years (2002-2009) under Rick Barnes having been a part of the last great run of Texas basketball.
In addition to that '03 Final Four, Texas got to the Elite Eight under Barnes in 2006 and 2008. Terry deflects any talk about him, referring everyone to a higher power.
When asked directly whether he had done enough to get the permanent gig, Terry said: "At the end of the day, God is going to put you where you're supposed to be."
Amen? At the very least a sense of rough-edged calm has settled over the program.
Where did that come from, indeed?
"I think [Terry] embodies what we are and what we try to be every game – tough," Allen said. "Someone who has been there before, never shakes at adversity. Somebody who wakes up and tries to attack the day to be great."