Since North Carolina accomplished the feat in the 1996-97 season, no team in college basketball had defeated a ranked opponent in four consecutive games until January 20th of this year, when Kansas defeated a ranked Baylor squad in Lawrence, on the heels of victories over Kansas State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State, all of whom were ranked as well.
It wouldn't take another 16 years to happen again. It didn't even take 16 days. It did involve Kansas, though: on February 1st, the No. 6 Jayhawks traveled to Austin for a Saturday matinee with Texas, who after wins over ranked Iowa State, Kansas State, and Baylor teams had an opportunity to match Kansas' rare accomplishment if they could pull off the upset.
And win it they did, knocking off the Jayhawks in dominant fashion, as Isaiah Taylor--not Andrew Wiggins--was the best player on the floor. Four ranked opponents in a row. Four straight wins for Texas.
The ranked opponents winning streak is a nice bit of feel-good trivia but ultimately just that. Much more important was the win's significance to the Longhorns' quest to rebound from last year's nightmare season that saw Texas miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 seasons under Rick Barnes.
One could easily point to Texas' outstanding win in Chapel Hill as the game when the team established itself as a NCAA Tournament team, but remember: the Longhorns opened up Big 12 play 0-2, with losses to Oklahoma at home and Oklahoma State on the road. Facing serious doubts about their readiness to navigate the rigors of arguably the nation's toughest conference, this young Texas team rallied for wins over Tech and West Virginia, before reeling off the four straight wins against ranked opponents. The win over Kansas in Austin improved Texas' conference record to 6-2 and issued the official release first drafted in North Carolina: Texas was an NCAA Tournament team once again, a year ahead of schedule.
That last bit is important: no one expected this young group to win 11 games in a loaded Big 12 and win 22 games overall. Prior to the season, optimistic Texas fans were struggling to find more than 8 or 9 wins on the Big 12 schedule and pessimists were writing Rick Barnes' obituary. Teams as young as Texas tend to take time to learn how to win the grueling physical battles that define major conference basketball. No one would have been surprised had the Longhorns finished 17-14 overall and 7-9 in conference play, with attention mostly focused on whether the team showed enough promise and development to improve on that mark a year from now.
But here we are, and there's no NIT or CBI or WTF in sight. Just the sweet NCAA's, the greatest tournament in all of sports. I can't say I was confident we'd make it before the season began, but I could hardly have enjoyed being surprised more than I did as this group kept delivering wins. Never more so than the first Saturday in February, when Texas whipped Kansas and all but punched its ticket to the Big Dance.
It's so, so good to be back. And who knows, maybe the surprises aren't done just yet...