Texas A&M-Corpus Christi only has been playing Division I basketball for 23 years, yet it is making its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and third appearance overall.
Under second-year head coach Steve Lutz, the Islanders have won back-to-back Southland Conference Tournament titles and will represent the conference as a 16-seed in the Big Dance.
“It’s been a fantastic year,” Lutz told The Dallas Express last week. “Obviously, for us, to come into a new situation last year and bring in the highest number of transfers in the country, and then to have all those guys return in the transfer portal age and to be able to repeat and go to the NCAA Tournament again; it’s cool. It’s really, really cool.”
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is a veteran team with nine seniors and two juniors on the roster, which Lutz believes is becoming rare in the current era of college basketball.
“In an age of instant gratification, we’ve had some guys that sacrificed and put others above them and given to the team rather than worry about themselves,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud for the university, and for the program, and obviously the city of Corpus Christi. It’s another opportunity to showcase everything we’ve got.”
The season has not been easy as the Islanders experienced a 3-5 stretch on the backend of their non-conference schedule that dropped them to 6-6 entering conference play.
“We had a little skid in the season,” Lutz told The Dallas Express. “A week where we didn’t play very good defense — a couple weeks, actually. But they just really bought into ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to be able to get the game moving fast. This is how we’re going to get opportunities in transition. This is how we’re going to be able to get extra baskets or extra possessions and easier baskets.'”
Lutz’s team responded by winning five of its first six conference games and finishing the conference slate with 10 wins in the final 11 games.
“They just gravitated towards it and bought into it,” he said. “But we’ve been pretty good with all that throughout the year. We’re just like any other team. We got full of ourselves a little bit and got away from what we’re good at, but what makes us good is being great defensively and turning people over, and we do a great job getting to the free-throw line.”
The Islanders are 44th in the nation with 21.1 free throw attempts per game and fifth in the country in free throw percentage at 79.02%.
That was part of the formula that led Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to the regular season Southland title and the No.1 seed in the conference tournament, a finish much better than the previous season.
“Last year, we were the four-seed, and this year we were the one,” Lutz remarked. “It’s totally different. You’re going from being a team that was kind of the hunter, and now you’re the hunted.”
“It’s a different set of pressures,” he added. “And then we played McNeese (State), and the tournament was at their arena, so that’s a road game. That’s our first game when we hadn’t played in almost a week, so it took a little bit of time to get our feet back under us.”
The Islanders won that game 80-63 to clinch a spot in the conference tournament final against Northwestern State.
“We played really well in the second half, especially defensively, and the championship game was what it was,” Lutz told The Dallas Express. “We lost our point guard in the first three minutes, so that screwed us up for a little, but then we figured it out.”
Entering the NCAA Tournament, Lutz is concentrated on keeping his team on task and focusing on what they do best.
“We kind of stick to what we do; not too many highs and lows. It’s cliche to say we stick to the process, but that’s really all we do.”
“At this time of year,” he added, “Most teams do what they do. Most coaches are pretty set with what they do. I just stick with the process as much as I can so they (the players) can stay even-keeled.”
Coach Lutz also believes some of the Islanders’ nonconference games and his team’s experience may have them better prepared this time, which he can rely on for motivation.
“We went and played Arizona in Arizona earlier in the year, and I think they were number four or five in the country,” Lutz recalled while speaking with The Dallas Express. “So our guys understand what they’re getting into, and that’s the great thing about the Tournament. There is an opportunity to shock the world.”
“Every kid that grows up (playing basketball) grew up wanting to play in the Tournament.,” he continued. “You grow up wanting to be on the national stage. Last year when we played in the play-in game, we were the first game of the Tournament. Nobody else was on TV. I mean, what else can you ask for? These guys are 18 to 22 years old; they feed into that.”
“Every single sports publication is going to cover it, and that’s what those guys dream about when they’re little.”
That motivation goes right along with what Lutz envisions for his program.
“We’d like to win, and that’s kind of been our progression,” Lutz emphasized. “We talked about winning the league. That was our goal; winning the league tournament. Our goal going into the NCAA Tournament is to win games.”
The Islanders are a 16-seed, as most had projected throughout the season. Only one 16-seed has ever pulled off an upset in the NCAA Tournament, but Lutz is not letting that discourage his team.
“Last year in the play-in game, we didn’t play our best,” he said. “But I think there’s so much parity in college basketball nowadays that it’s not unreasonable. Certainly, it’ll be harder. Our point guard got hurt, and we’re not sure if he’ll play and all that kind of stuff, but it’s not unreasonable to think that we can win some games.”
“History tells you it’s not a battle, but that’s what we do it for. This is why you do it. It’s awesome. There’s nothing better than this.”
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (23-10) begins its NCAA Tournament journey against Southeast Missouri State (19-16) in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio at 5:40 p.m. CT Tuesday.