Not -too- much has changed since our last Texas Basketball Report, which immediately preceded Texas' home win over Arkansas and dramatic overtime loss to Tennessee. The Horns got a much-needed split in those two, and have taken care of Centenary and UT-Arlington in the meantime. We also had an in depth look Inside The Numbers just before the tussle with Tennessee.
The shape of this team is starting to come into focus, so let's spend today's report on what the Horns need to accomplish during Big 12 play to ensure themselves a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Horns will play 16 conference games, with one out of conference game (at Villanova on 1/20), to close out the season. Let's start with the current resume:
Quality wins (RPI Top 50): Arkansas, LSU
Bad Losses (RPI 100+): None
Meh. No real blemishes on the resume, but going 1 for 3 against Tennessee-Gonzaga-Michigan State would have been nice. Especially when you consider that Texas had every opportunity to beat both the Vols and Spartans.
But that's where we are. Looking ahead, then, what does Texas need to accomplish in its final seventeen contests to get where it wants? To look at this, let's first break down Texas' remaining opponents by quality.
Potential Top 30 Teams: @Villanova, @Kansas, Oklahoma State (2), Texas A&M (2)
Potential Top 60 Teams: @Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas State, Texas Tech (2), Oklahoma (2)
Potential Bad Losses: @Colorado, Baylor (2), Iowa State
Tallying these by category, then, Texas potentially has:
*6 big wins left on the board
*7 games against opponents it should beat more often than not
*4 games that it would be very painful to lose
That's a good opportunity distribution, really. If the Horns can go 5-2 against the middle group, and sweep the lesser opponents, that's nine more wins added to the tally. Given that 4 of the 6 remaining prime matchups are on the road, we could conservatively hope for 2-3 wins there and not be accused of being unrealistic. Add it up and Texas is in line for 21-22 regular season wins this season, and that's if the team just sort of takes care of business. Given the ridiculously high ceiling for this team, it wouldn't be an upset if they got to 24 wins.
But let's not get too greedy. Aiming for that 21-22 win plateau heading into the Big 12 tourney would be just fine. If the team is what we hope it can be, it'll be in position to win a game or three in the Big 12 tourney and play itself into a #4-6 seed. And that, really, needs to be the focus of what we look at. The Longhorns - given this team's incredible inexperience - need to avoid falling to the #7-#10 seeds. If Texas can play its way into that 4-6 seed range, it would avoid a monster of an opponent until the Sweet 16. Yes, yes, I know: we're looking ahead a lot here, but it's instructive - with a team like this - to keep the big picture goals in mind. Why? Because there are going to be nights when this team doesn't quite get it done. In all likelihood, we'll drop a frustrating, ugly game to a team in that middle bracket. We'll probably squeak out a win against one of those bad teams that we're supposed to handle comfortably.
But if we're on top of where this team needs to finish, as opposed to just agonizing over the details of how it gets there, we'll be in a better position to appreciate the team's organic growth. This is as young a basketball team as I've ever seen in the collegiate ranks. Certainly the youngest team I've ever seen that has a ceiling as high as this team's does. Even the 2003 national title winning Syracuse team had this team beat in spades in terms of experience. And they started three freshmen. That's how young we are.
Texas gets three games it should win before heading to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State - 1/6 at Colorado, 1/10 versus Missouri, and 1/13 versus Oklahoma. Win those three and we'll be in great shape to start seeing what kind of run this team can make.