In many senses, this Texas basketball team is playing with house money at this point: heading into the finale of a regular season in which the preseason consensus projected the Longhorns to finish 8th place in the Big 12 and fail to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, they're tied for 2nd place in the standings with 11 wins in the books and a lock to receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Expectations have been exceeded, and a road win over Texas Tech would just be additional gravy. Paid for with house money. Or something. That's why you don't mix metaphors, boys and girls, but whatever... you get the idea.
A win really would be nice, both as padding for our NCAA Tournament resume and for guaranteeing either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Big 12 Tournament (i.e. a spot in the non-Kansas half of the bracket). Road wins are never a certainty, but among the options, in Texas Tech the Longhorns drew the team most beatable on its home floor (other than TCU, which has been nothing but beatable, whether at home or away).
That being said, the Red Raiders have proven this season that they are anything but pushovers, and the first year of the Tubby Smith era in Lubbock similarly has been a season exceeding expectations. Texas Tech opened February with three straight conference wins, including a home victory over Oklahoma State and road win over OU, and very nearly knocked off Kansas at Phog Allen right after that. Although the Red Raiders have fallen flat since the win in Norman, dropping each of their last seven games -- including a pair at home to KU and K-State -- the 9th place team in the Big 12 still finds itself slotted at No. 86 in the Pomeroy ratings, which gives you a pretty good idea of just how strong, top-to-bottom, the conference has been this year.
Tech was competitive for a victory in the two teams' first meeting in Austin back in January, but the game marked a turning point for the Longhorns following consecutive defeats to open Big 12 play, the first victory in what would grow to become a seven-game streak for Texas. The victory parade finally came to an end on the road at Kansas State, however, and since then Texas has struggled badly away from its home court.
All of which is to say: this is a winnable road game, but not necessarily one we should expect to win. Let's conclude, then, with a quick look at a few of my keys to picking up the win in Lubbock:
* Let Jaye Crockett shoot jump shots. Tech's 6-7 hybrid forward would be a household name if he played for a premier program, and his quickness, handles, athleticism, and ability to score from all over the court make him a match up nightmare and a true pick-your-poison player. That being said, it's not a difficult choice: the priority is keeping Crockett in front of you and limiting clean looks at or near the rim. The trade off is ceding to Crockett some quality looks on jumpers. He's a good shooter and could easily wind up doing lethal damage taking jumpers, and if he does you tip your cap. If we're playing to win, we need Ridley and Holmes on the floor, which may not happen if our defensive game plan places them places them in the position of trying to guard Crockett 18 feet from the bucket.
* To the rim. I've highlighted Javan Felix's dramatic splits between recent home and away performances, but it's a malady that has plagued our entire backcourt, and rather than launch a pile of bricks from long range, perhaps today we might benefit from an offensive game plan that focuses instead on attacking the rim... That happens to be what this group of Longhorns does best anyway, and there should be plenty of opportunities for Texas to score at the rim or free throw line, in part because of its substantial size advantage in the frontcourt and partly because of the extended perimeter defense Tubby Smith has always had his team play.
* Value possessions from the get-go. Games at Kansas and K-State were both lost within minutes of the opening tip, thanks to atrocious ball security on the part of the Longhorns. The Red Raiders defensive style applies pressure and seeks to capitalize on turnovers,, and their roster of outstanding open court players feast on tentativeness or sloppy execution.
Personally, I'm not sure what to expect. I'd really like to think that we're going to wrap up the year with an encouraging performance, but this young team is starting to fade a bit from the long season, and neither will I be surprised to see us struggle on the road once again. With a low degree of confidence, then, I'll roll with an optimistic projection befitting this team of overachievers: Horns pick up win number 12, 67-65.