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In my season preview I identified Texas' first three Big 12 games as a potentially defining stretch for this young Texas team and its chances to extend the Longhorns NCAA Tournament streak to 14 seasons, and conference play is now here after the Longhorns closed out their non-conference slate with a win over Rice to improve their record to 10-3 (9-0 at home). Building on Jeff's excellent primer on this year's Big 12, let's look a little closer at these first three conference games (at Iowa State, versus Oklahoma State, and versus Texas A&M) and why they're so important to the team's prospects.
To begin, let me lay out of a few important assumptions. First, let's assume that 10 conference wins is the magic number to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday. A 10-8 Big 12 record would put Texas at 20-11 overall heading into the Big 12 Tournament, with a solid shot at earning a bye into the quarterfinals. Although it's very much plausible that a Big 12 team with a 9-9 conference record could get a bid to the Tournament, a .500 mark would make for a very nervous Selection Sunday for Texas, which possesses a pedestrian non-conference resume.
Second, let's assume for present purposes that Texas goes 1-5 across the brutal six-game stretch at Missouri, at K-State, vs Kansas, vs Iowa St, at Baylor, and vs Missouri. Although the Longhorns have a reasonable chance to steal another win or two in that stretch, it would not be the least bit surprising to see Texas drop all five of those difficult games.
Third, let's also assume that in February Texas is going to lose at Kansas (we're not winning at Allen Fieldhouse) and at home versus Baylor (a particularly difficult match up for this Texas team). If Texas does in fact go 1-5 in its brutal six-game stretch, that's 7 conference losses for Texas, leaving the Longhorns with room for just a single other loss to get to 10-8. Although there are other paths to a 10-win Big 12 season, it's easy to see why opening conference play 3-0 would provide a huge boost to our chances to get there.
One way to measure how likely Texas is to win all three games is through KenPom.com's projection system, which currently gives us a 64% chance to win Wednesday night at Iowa State, an 83% chance to beat OSU at home, and an 86% chance of a home win versus A&M. Although that gives us a 96% chance of going at least 2-1, there's only a 46% chance we win all three.
Another way to look at our chances is to look at Texas' historical performance in home and away games versus Big 12 teams ranked between 50 and 100 in KenPom's ratings. (Iowa State is currently ranked No. 83, OSU is No. 76, and A&M is No. 85.) Since 2006 the Longhorns have played 38 conference games against teams ranked between 50-100, accumulating a 29-9 record (.763). Texas played 18 of those games at home, where they went 17-1 (.944) -- the lone loss coming in 2007 to, who else, No. 50 K-State -- while managing a 12-8 record (.600) on the road. Using those historical percentages, Texas has a 57% chance of going 3-0 and a 99% chance of going at least 2-1.
Either way you look at it, Texas is a very strong bet to win at least two of the three games, but is as likely as not to drop at least one. Again, assuming that Texas loses twice to Missouri, Kansas, and Baylor, plus at Kansas State, in order to get to 10 conference wins the Longhorns would need to pick up either 7 (with a 3-0 start) or 8 (with a 2-1 start) wins from the following 8 games:
at Texas A&M
at Oklahoma State
at Texas Tech
Texas could get seven wins with three home victories over Tech and the two Oklahomas plus at least three road wins and a K-State home win, or three home wins plus a 4-0 sweep on the road, which doesn't seem likely. Obviously, the odds of winning all 8 games also isn't likely (roughly 7% using KenPom win percentages).
Of course, lest all those low percentages dismay you, it should be noted that the odds that Texas loses all seven of its toughest games is even lower -- just 3% -- so there's likely to be a bit more room for error than in the most pessimistic scenario. Indeed, based on all the projected win percentages on Texas schedule, KenPom's numbers currently project Texas to finish with an 11-7 conference record.
The bottom line, though, is that a 3-0 start will be a very good sign that this Texas team is capable of winning 10 conference games this year. The first test comes Wednesday night in Ames (8 pm CT on ESPNU), where the Longhorns will take on an Iowa State team that shoots the ball very well, controls the defensive glass, and is as good as any team in the country in terms of getting to the line themselves while limiting opponents' free throw opportunities.