Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
Saturday night’s battle between UMHB and ETBU was a showcase for D-III basketball in the Lone Star State if there ever was one.
It had everything you would want out of an NCAA Tournament matchup: all-american-caliber players on the court, a back-and-forth contest with seven lead changes, and a dramatic finish that brought the crowd of 1,143 to its feet when Josiah Johnson’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer swished through the net.
It was March at its finest, showcasing the high level of college basketball that this month has become so synonymous with over the last several decades.
“Playing D3 basketball, it really doesn’t get the respect it needs,” ETBU guard Aaron Gregg said postgame. “But anybody who was in the building realizes that [this game] was [between] potentially two powerhouses in us and UMHB.”
For quite some time, Texas had not had a true “powerhouse” on the national scale. Until last year, no Lone State state team had reached the Sweet 16 (though it is referred to as the sectional semifinals in D-III) since Hardin-Simmons did so in 2017. UMHB’s third round victory over Case Western Reserve last season also marked the first time since ETBU in 2015 that a Texas program won on the second weekend of the national tournament.
Now in 2023, four teams from the state of Texas qualified for the 64-team tournament, a feat never before accomplished in the history of the tournament, based on research done by True To The Cru.
Sure, an expanded bracket and two conferences of primarily Texas schools in the ASC and SCAC helped bring that about–”a Texas super bowl” as Schreiner head coach Marwan Elrakabawy said earlier in the week–but there is no denying that the level of basketball in this state is rising by the year.
“I think sometimes we get stuck down here and people forget about us,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll said Saturday. “They don’t think we can play or that we’re not the bluebloods of Division III because we came along to division three late. These kids can play with anyone in the country.”
Saturday night’s matchup offered a glimpse into that reality, which became more and more apparent throughout the year.
ETBU, under third-year head coach Chris Lovell, won 20-plus games for the first time since the 2019-20 season, and is set to return all but two from their current roster next season.
St. Thomas, who fell to ETBU in Friday’s first round, was ranked in D3hoops.com’s Top 15 for much of the year, in its first season eligible for NCAA Tournament play after making the transition from NAIA.
Schreiner made an improbable SCAC Tournament run that included a win over Region 10 No. 1 St. Thomas, displaying just how deep the state is when it comes to competitive programs.
And UMHB, the hosts of this past weekend’s four-team pod that included the Cru and the three mentioned above, is in the third round of the tournament for the second straight year.
On one hand, watching Texas’ best battle it out in Belton over the last two days was thrilling, with so much high-level basketball packed into three games. On the other hand, the talent and athleticism displayed on Saturday night gave the thought that these teams should not have been playing on the first weekend of the tournament.
“Let me say this,” Carroll said after beating ETBU. “This game tonight was a great showcase for Division III basketball in Texas. It’s unfortunate that we’re going to end up with this Texas pod more times than not. It’s the geography of Division III basketball.”
Indeed. In a perfect world, UMHB and ETBU would not have been playing in the Round of 32, forced to eliminate each other for the right to advance. Their winning percentages, strength of schedule, and other statistical criteria were both likely good enough to be high seeds in the national tournament, and avoid such a tough matchup on the first weekend.
“We play another team tonight, we probably advance,” Lovell noted postgame. “You fight and you try to give yourselves a chance.”
The reason they played each other on Saturday night? Carroll said it. Geography. It is the nature of D-III, the largest division in the NCAA, yet one heavily populated by east coast and midwest schools. Once four Lone Star State universities clinched their tournament spots, it was pretty much a forgone conclusion. The D-III selection committee didn’t have much of a choice, trying to save the number of flights used to create first weekend pods, and keep things balanced across the national bracket.
“There’s really nothing we can do about it,” Carroll said of the fact that all four Texas teams were grouped together on the first weekend. “We can try to schedule our way out of it, but the fact of the matter is that [in Texas] we’re going to have to beat ourselves to move on. It’s a shame that East Texas Baptist can’t also make a run to the Sweet 16. Because they’re that good.”
Carroll continued in the postgame press conference.
“If you had told me coming into tonight that East Texas Baptist won a national championship, I’d say ‘Ok, I can see that.’ If you told us that Mary Hardin-Baylor is going to make a run and win a national championship, I’d say ok.”
So if the fact that ETBU and UMHB had to play in the Round of 32, rather than in a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 setting is the disappointment of this whole thing, it is clear what the positive takeaway is: we had the chance to witness two tremendously talented squads play with their seasons on the line in a game decided by the final shot. It will not be a game soon forgotten, and hopefully, gained Division III basketball in Texas a little bit more national respect.
“We were the last game of the night,” Carroll commented postgame. “Hopefully there were a lot of eyeballs on the second half, and hopefully the way these kids went out and competed tonight garnered some respect across the nation for Division III basketball in Texas.
“I’m not a big, ‘Hey, we’re not respected’ guy. But anybody that watched that game tonight has to understand that these are two of the best teams in the country. They really went after it tonight.”
And maybe in the future, the high level of play witnessed inside the Mayborn Campus Center will be seen between two Texas programs with a trip to the Final Four on the line. The future is certainly bright, with so many programs on the rise in this vast state, home to 16 D-III schools.
“It’s a special night we’ll always remember,” Carroll added. “And maybe in the future we can figure out a way to split up the Texas teams in the tournament or find a way to do it differently where this game is an Elite Eight or Final Four game, rather than a Round of 32 game every year.”