The march toward a 16-0 conference mark is over as the No. 2/3 Texas Longhorns fall, 70-67, to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Despite a furious rally in the final three minutes of the game, aided by mindless Nebraska fouls, Texas could never overcome the lead they relinquished early in the second half. The Huskers dominated the glass from start to finish, crippled the Texas defense with dribble penetration, and limited the Texas offense by sagging four or five players in the paint and daring the Longhorns to score from the perimeter.
In a game that looked eerily similar to the December loss at Southern Cal, Texas was thoroughly worked physically, especially in the low post. The Nebraska size gave the ‘Horns fits, got most of the Texas frontcourt into foul trouble, and forced Rick Barnes to play some odd lineups, mostly in the first half.
Doc Sadler also refused the guard Dogus Balbay in the half court and instructed his defender to sag toward Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson at all times. This strategy, that Texas and Doge have seen many times, is usually effective and was even more so with Jordan Hamilton's jumper not falling. Rick Barnes countered with J'Covan Brown off the bench and for the first half, the Texas counter worked.
In the second half, though, the absence of Balbay's on-the-ball defense proved too much for the Texas half court defense to overcome. Nebraska either attacked with their size advantage in the low post and scored repeatedly over Matt Hill, Johnson, or Alexis Wangmene, or worked their weave on the perimeter and eventually turned the corner and collapsed the Texas defense. With the Texas defense scrambling, rebounding assignments were lost and Nebraska bigs left uncovered. The help defense came but was a step slower than we've seen during most conference games. Nebraska scored at will in the paint in the second half, and that as much as anything else, was the difference in the game.
If the failures on the defensive end weren't enough to produce an upset, the ineptness of Texas offense put the Cornhusker's upset bid over the top. Texas was decent in the first half offensively, mostly due to some clutch buckets from Brown, but the failure of Texas to run their motion offense should have been concerning even with a seven point lead at halftime. With Balbay on the floor, Texas couldn't feed the post; with Brown on the floor, the Texas offense resorted to last year's one-on-one attack.
For the first 20 minutes, Texas made just enough shots to mask the ineffectiveness. But when the shots stopped falling early in the second, it was ugly, really ugly. Nebraska outscored Texas 44-34 in the second half.
Hamilton's 18 points tied Brown's for the team lead but Jordan's came on an ice cold 3-for-16 outing from the floor, including just 3-of-11 from deep. Hamilton was also terrible defensively. He had trouble staying low and moving his feet, gave up dribble penetration all game long, and repeatedly lost his man while ball watching.
J'Covan was more efficient, 7-for-13 from the floor, but a missed free throw in the final minute plus contributed some costly turnovers which hurt the Texas comeback effort.
Johnson, eight points and nine boards, played well but his first half foul trouble helped stall the Texas offense and allowed Nebraska to sag toward Thompson without the fear of giving up a mid-range jumper from the elbow.
Tristan Thompson was basically zoned out of this game, and Nebraska didn't even play zone defense. His five points and three rebounds in 33 minutes of play prove my point. And for the first time since our November trip to NYC for close games against Illinois and Pittsburgh, Barnes had to decide if Thompson could stay on the floor late in the game. TT was his typical 3-for-7 from the free throw stripe, with one miss coming on the front end of a one-and-one. Unless TT can show some improvement from the line, I will be terrified at the end of Big 12 and NCAA tournament games.
Matt Hill and Alexis Wangmene both played forgettable games while battling the Nebraska bigs. Hill, while maybe the victim of some quick whistles, managed to foul out in 14 minutes of action. Wangmene is the opposite of Tristan. Thompson can't sink a free throw but shoots over 50% from the floor, while Alexis can't make an unguarded dunk but is money from the line.
Big Picture: This loss stings but is far from crippling. With the Kansas loss on Big Monday at Kansas State, the Longhorns remain a full game ahead of the Jayhawks in the Big 12 race. That said, a two game lead with just four left would have been close to insurmountable. Now, the ‘Horns have just a single game lead with two weeks remaining.
Texas closes with Iowa State, at Colorado, Kansas State, and at Baylor. Kansas ends the regular season with Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and at Missouri. The Longhorns should be able to take care of their two home games but both road games are going to be tough. Colorado presents some match-up problems at guard with the size of Alec Burks (6-6) and Cory Higgins (6-5) and playing in the altitude in Boulder is never easy. Second, winning in Waco is not a given either. Both of those games are toss-ups in my mind.
Kansas has the easier schedule the rest of the game as they should coast to victories in both home games and at OU. The only toss-up remaining for Bill Self's club will be at Missouri to close the season.
So, where does that leave us? Texas probably needs to win out to secure the Big 12 title outright. Otherwise, KU will likely be playing for a split title when they go to Columbia on March 5th.
As far as national seeds, Texas is still in great position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament but in a less strong position to stay in the San Antonio region. At this point, Ohio State and Pitt, even with the Panthers' loss today, should be seeded ahead of Texas and get to stay in the East and Southeast.
The third and fourth No. 1 seeds are tougher to define. Texas and Kansas are right there as is Duke. Strong finishes to the season by either BYU or San Diego State and a Mountain West tournament title would get either of those teams into contention for the fourth No. 1 seed as well.
There are still two weeks left in the regular season plus conference tournaments before Selection Sunday. That is a ton of basketball, and nothing is definite. Texas got dinged today, no question, but is still in solid position for a Big 12 title, a protected seed, and path to Houston that would include Tulsa and San Antonio. Another regular season loss and / or an early loss in the Big 12 tournament coupled with some other strong finishes and who knows.
Texas fans should be disappointed in today's effort and outcome, disgruntled that our vaunted Texas D got worked, and concerned about facing another team with talented bigs in the NCAA tournament. However, it's almost March, and you should be extremely excited too.
Next Game: vs. Iowa State - Tuesday, Feb 22nd 7 pm Big 12 Nework