We're in uncharted territory here as Texas basketball fans in the Rick Barnes era. February is drawing to a close and this Texas Longhorns basketball team is squarely on the bubble. Normally we're talking about whether we're going to get a protected top-four seed.
It's been an odd year all around. Whatever else one might say about Rick Barnes, you can't question his willingness to schedule a tough non-conference slate, but this year -- for the first time, really -- our out-of-conference schedule was pretty weak. Honestly, given this team's make up coming in to the season I thought that was probably a good thing, but now that it's resume time -- and given the way our Big 12 season has unfolded with so many near-misses -- it's not doing much to help us.
Speaking of which, and also on the odd side, it's been remarkable -- and remarkably frustrating -- to see us fall just short in so many big games. From the two losses in the Legends Classic, to the heartbreaking string of conference losses that have come down to the final possession, we were 1-8 in games decided by 6 points or less heading into the ugly affair in Lubbock, and if it's not much use to say that based on a number of factors -- whether statistical- or historical-based -- we "should have" won 3-5 of those games, it's still remarkably unlucky that we didn't at least win one more. Even a 2-7 record in those games would likely have us in a notably different NCAA Tournament than we are today.
Alas, water under the bridge, etc. We are where we are, and as frustrating as a lot of this season's journey has been, there have been very meaningful positive aspects to this season as well, and this team has proven that it can compete with the best of the best. Nevermind the shame that we've fallen short so many times, if we do get in to the NCAA Tournament, we're in the same bottom-line position as we would have been had things broken much more favorably: Win and advance. Lose and go home. Some paths to the Final Four are easier than others, but at the end of the day, you're not getting there without playing good basketball and beating at least three quality teams -- whether you start as a No. 1 seed, or No. 13.
With that in mind, perhaps we can spend the remainder of this season focusing on rooting for the team to accomplish that goal, and tone down the Rick Barnes Referendum some of you so desperately want to engage. There's plenty of time for that, and now isn't that time.
Where Texas Stands
Heading into the final week of the season, Texas is 18-11 overall, 8-8 in Big 12 conference play, with an RPI Rating of No. 55 and a KenPom rating of No. 26 (more on that in a moment). We went 10-3 across our non-conference slate with two decent wins at UCLA (16-13, 9-7, RPI 137) and versus UT-Arlington (22-6, 14-0, RPI 86), a strong win at home over Temple (22-6, 11-3, RPI 15), and three losses ranging from meaningless (at UNC) to not-terrible (NC State) to harmful (Oregon State). In Big 12 play, we have two quality wins at home versus K-State (19-9, 8-8, RPI 45) and Iowa State (21-8, 11-5, RPI 31), a not-good-but-not-terrible loss at Oklahoma State (14-15, 7-11, RPI 112), and a whole bunch of wins and close losses that don't hurt -- but won't necessarily help -- our NCAA Tournament resume.
On the bright side, our ability for the most part to take care of business against middling to lesser teams, coupled with a demonstrated ability to beat or compete with top competition, gives us a pretty compelling profile for a bubble team, as ultimately, the Selection Committee is looking for teams that have proven themselves against Tournament-caliber competition. On the downside, our inability to break through for at least one more win against a top-tier team can be viewed as a barometer of our ability to win in March. Without question, we'd be in much, much stronger shape with even one more signature win.
As it is, we've got two games left to play in the regular season, plus the Big 12 Tournament, to bolster that resume. Winning on Wednesday night at home against Oklahoma is essential, and a win over Kansas in Lawrence would lock us in the field, but a fair assessment of those two games would probably conclude that we're more likely to lose to OU than we are to beat the Jayhawks. In all likelihood, we're looking at a split of those two games, which would mean heading in to the Big 12 Tournament pretty much in exactly the same shape as we're in today.
The Big 12 Tournament
The conference tournament has never meant much for Texas in terms of the post-season, but this year it might, depending on how things shake out around the country. If, for example, a pair of NCAA Tournament bids were to go to upset winners of the Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10 tournaments, that would mean two fewer at-large spots for bubble teams like Texas.
Like the regular season schedule, in the new 10-team Big 12 the conference tournament is changing this year. Whereas in previous years only the top four seeds received a first-round bye, in the 2012 Big 12 Tournament the 7 through 10 seeds will square off in opening round match ups, with the winners to slot into the quarterfinals. In the top half of the bracket, the No. 1 seed will play the winner of the No. 8 vs No. 9 seed game in one quarterfinal, with the No. 4 vs No. 5 seeds to play in the other. In the bottom half of the bracket, the No. 7 vs. No. 10 seed game will move on to play the No. 2 seed in one quarter, with No. 3 vs No. 6 squaring off in the other.
As of today, Texas is the No. 6 seed, sharing an identical 8-8 conference record with Kansas State, but losing on the tiebreaker, because while the teams split their head-to-head match ups, the Wildcats possess the better road record (4-4, versus 3-5 for Texas). Assuming that the Longhorns finish the season 9-9, with a 3-6 road record, Kansas State would be the No. 5 seed with either a win at Texas A&M or home versus Oklahoma State, because even if the Wildcats were to lose at A&M, with a home win over OSU they'd still get to 9-9 overall and win the tiebreaker over Texas with the superior 4-5 road ledger.
Unless in the unlikely event that Iowa State closes the regular season with wins at Missouri and home versus Baylor, that would mean No. 6 seed Texas would square off in the quarters against No. 3 seed Baylor. All things considered, that's probably a better draw for Texas than the No. 5 seed would offer, which would pit them in a rematch against No. 4 seed Iowa State. Not only do the Bears provide Texas with another opportunity for a signature win, but this Longhorns team came close in both of the first two meetings, and as they say it's difficult to beat a team three times in one season. And as depressing as is this little streak Scott Drew is on over the last three seasons, you may recall that Texas' 23-game winning streak over Baylor was snapped in the 2009 Big 12 Tournament... when the 'Horns couldn't defeat Baylor for the third-straight time that season.
Bottom line: given the current standings and remaining schedule, the odds are high that Texas will be the No. 6 seed, with a quarterfinal match up against Baylor. Lord knows what sort of heartbreak may be in store for us this time around, but as far as storyboarding best-case scenarios for Texas' tournament chances, the opportunity to beat Baylor is as good as we could hope for.
The Rest of the Bubble
As mentioned above, though: barring a streak of wins of its own, Texas' path to the NCAA Tournament depends in part on what happens elsewhere among NCAA Tournament contenders. First and foremost, if Texas' doesn't improve its margin for error with a signature win or two, it very much needs an orderly conference tournament season filled with favorites winning the auto-bids. It doesn't do much good if Texas would be one of the last few in if a string of at-large bids are lost to upset winners of conference tournaments, so along with rooting for Texas to take its fate into its own hands, root for conference tournament favorites as a hedge in case the Longhorns remain right on the dividing line.
Not only is Texas entering the closing stretch with the opportunity to lock up its bid, but assuming things unfold reasonably orderly, there's more good news for Texas, even if the status quo holds and it doesn't do much more for itself other than beat Oklahoma. Of the 26 bracket projections that have been updated as of this past Saturday's result, Texas is in the projected field in 23 of those brackets, with an average seed of 11.7. Ranking Texas on its pure paper resume, ESPN's Joe Lunardi, CBS Sports' Jerry Palm, and SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean each have us as one of their last four in, while we show up as high as a 9 or 10 seed on five other bracket projections, presumably based on an evaluation that favorably weights our numerous close losses.
While the margin for error on the "pure paper resume" doesn't leave much room for comfort, it's good that we're on the right side of the bubble (if barely) on that count, and encouraging that if the Selection Committee takes the approach that some of the other bracketologists do (valuing our body of work against top competition, even in losses) we could be much more comfortably in the field.
Sticking with the good news, Drew Cannon had an interesting post at Basketball Prospectus a couple of weeks back in which he offered a time-saving solution to all the subjective bracket projections, by noting that if you just projected the field based on the sum of every team's RPI Rating + KemPom Rating, you'd get the correct field minus 2-3 teams each of the last five years, which is on par with the records of the best human bracket projectors. And by that metric, Texas is sitting pretty as compared with its peers on the bubble:
All told, although our position on the far perimeter of the field is such that we could easily find ourselves on the outside looking in if things don't go right/well down the stretch, if the season ended today, it seems likely that this Texas team -- for all its ups and downs and everything in between -- would get to compete in the NCAA Tournament. This isn't a position we've been in before, but considering where this team started, considering its limitations, considering its astounding number of near-misses... it'll feel damn great if this team manages to earn an invitation to the Dance.
Ultimately, getting in the NCAA Tournament is all that matters, and right now, that goal is still within reach. It's an objective that during the time Rick Barnes has been at Texas only five other programs have joined the Longhorns in accomplishing every single year: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Kansas, and Duke. When it's all said and done, maybe this will be the season that Rick Barnes finally joins the likes of Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan, and Jim Calhoun in falling short, but it's pretty remarkable that this is the first year it's even come down to the end.
So rather than bemoan Rick Barnes for what he has yet to accomplish, join me in rooting like hell for this young Texas team to get us into March Madness yet again. Because like the lotto, you can't win if you don't play.