Even with a loss in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament, it's possible that the Texas Longhorns basketball team could still get an NCAA Tournament bid, just as it's possible that even with a win they could find themselves left out. But with margins this thin, Thursday night's battle with Iowa State is certainly going to feel like a must-win for the Longhorns, and I, for one, will be absolutely insufferable from 8:30 to 11:00 pm, roaring at every perceived slight from the officials, and bone-headed turnover from our freshmen.
In short: I'll be utterly elated if we win, and downright inconsolable if we lose.
In terms of stakes, Thursday night's quarterfinal versus Iowa State is arguably the biggest non-NCAA Tournament game of the Rick Barnes era. Never before has Texas been anywhere near the Bubble, but this year the Horns are literally right on the dividing line, presently among the Last Four In or First Four Out on a majority of projected brackets. One game does not a season make, but having arrived where we are, a win or a loss could indeed make all the difference. At least for the next 24 hours, my animosity towards the Iowa State basketball team is going to rival the visceral hatred I feel each October when the Longhorns football team travels to Dallas. Okay, maybe not.... But I want this win badly.
Right on the Bubble
To illuminate just how precarious is Texas' NCAA Tournament position heading into this game, consider the perennially helpful Bracket Matrix, which serves as a composite index for the vast sea of bracket projections that are published around the web. This year the Bracket Matrix is tracking the projected brackets from 99 of such sites, updating the composite ranking of each team in real time to produce a consensus NCAA Tournament field.
As of Wednesday, the Longhorns' composite seed across those 99 projections is 11.8, which places them in the field and just ahead of the Last Four In: Seton Hall, South Florida, Northwestern, and Xavier. While that's reasonably encouraging, if we ignore the average seeds and just look at the number of brackets that project Texas in the field, the Longhorns' placement on 70 of the 99 brackets places them below Northwestern (82), Xavier (77) and South Florida (72) -- in other words, one of the last two in, just ahead of Seton Hall (67). With both Drexel (51) and Miami-FL (50) not far behind, whatever happens it's safe to say that as of now Texas is right on the dividing line.
The Big 12 Tournament
Over at Barking Carnival Jeff C. has put together a great overview of the Big 12 Tournament, highlighting each team's chances both in the conference championship and the Big Dance. On Texas, he writes:
Season Recap: So close, yet so far. Had the Horns returned one-and-dones Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, we would have been talking about a Final Four run. Instead, we lament all the close losses that led to a 9-9 conference record. J'Covan Brown is awesome-o, and Myck Kabongo is enigmatically talented. All that is for naught if we're having the same discussion next year with both players gone to the professional ranks.
Predicted Big 12 Tournament Finish: 3rd Round Exit. The intelligent, experienced Tigers have been all kinds of wrong for Texas.
Predicted NCAA Tournament Bid: Last Four In. Call me an optimist.
That would work just fine for me, and to echo a good point I hadn't considered until reader Mclovin1035 mentioned it in a comment thread, if Texas were to be one of the last four teams in, it would present the team with the opportunity to essentially play two first-round games if it managed to win the play-in on Tuesday. Although I vehemently disagree with those who think an NIT berth would be more beneficial to this (or any) team, I'll happily agree that in a season where the team isn't likely to make a Final Four run it could be beneficial for the Longhorns to get to play two or more post-season games, and the play-in game provides a much easier path to two games than one that requires a win over a No. 4 or No. 5 seed, and does so without sacrificing all the benefits of making the NCAA Tournament.
Texas vs Iowa State
Pivoting finally to Texas' quarterfinal battle with Iowa State, Reggieball (RB) has published an excellent primer on the Cyclones' strengths and weaknesses, and the particular challenges and opportunities that those create. Looking first at Iowa State's offense, RB properly focuses on the
elephant tight end in the room: 6-8, 270-pound Royce White.
Royce White really puts the defense in a bind. With all of the good three point shooters, it is dangerous to over-commit help defenders when he drives to the basket. White is a really good passer who will always look to find the open man. But if White gets to the rim, he makes the shot 76% of the time. And over half of Royce White's field goal attempts are at the rim, so if you aren't careful he can turn the game into a personal layup line. [...] I also don't envy any of the Texas players who have to defend White; when White is barreling at you it is like trying to stop a Pontiac.
That's pretty much Iowa State's offense in a nutshell, and as RB points out, complicating the strategic considerations for Rick Barnes is the loss of Wangmene, which leaves Texas with just three frontcourt players -- which is also to say, just 15 frontcourt fouls to give.
Although Texas could attack the problem by deploying aggressive help defense when White penetrates, I think RB correctly concludes that it is not the optimal strategy. First of all, White is so strong and skilled a penetrator that too often even after throwing a help defender at White the end result will be the same: either a bucket or foul at the rim. Second, Fred Hoiberg has designed his offense around White precisely to punish such an approach, eager to lure defenders away from his team's strongest asset: its prolific three-point shooters. And third, the relative value of an open three pointer -- which is substantial to begin with -- is that much greater because White cannot shoot the ball. He does not shoot three pointers well. He does not shoot two-point jumpers well. And he does not shoot free throws well.
Particularly at the college level, I tend to think of basketball strategy as largely a matter of getting your evaluation of trade offs right. Much like when in considering the strengths and weaknesses of your own personnel, playing extreme pressure defense at the expense of gobs of fouls committed can be the right trade off for one roster of players (e.g. Kansas State) but wrong for another (e.g. Missouri), the same considerations of trade offs are important in game-planning a given opponent.
I say all this because I think getting those trade offs right is especially important against Royce White and Iowa State. It's crucial to understand what White does and does not well do, and what you can and cannot live with. Texas can live with a 30-point game from White and -- RB is right -- go small against him at times, if the trade off is limited contributions from his teammates on the perimeter. It's the relative value of the trade offs that matter, and I agree wholeheartedly with RB in concluding that Texas' best bet is to limit Iowa State's opportunities for big payoffs on the perimeter.
Speaking of which, and as a final point on the defensive strategy on Thursday night, keep an eye on the Longhorns' transition defense as a barometer for our chances. The Cyclones won the game in Ames in the first half, when Texas' sleepy, incoherent transition defense helped Iowa State's sharpshooters launch -- and connect on -- a barrage of open three-pointers. There's been a clear correlation between our defensive effectiveness and our awareness in transition all season, and this is a potential win-or-go-home game against a team who is substantially less dangerous when forced to earn all their points in the halfcourt.
Turning, finally, to when Texas has the ball, I think RB gets it right with his general thrust that the Longhorns need to attack the basket. We have three players who can make good things happen when they're proactive about getting to the rim, and while we've been able to count on J`Covan Brown to do that on a consistent basis, both Myck Kabongo and Sheldon McClellan have only done so in spurts. When they do, good things generally happen, but because both are still struggling with decision-making as a general matter, they variously fall out of the flow of the offense, become tentative or deferential, and play to avoid mistakes.
It's a particularly tricky challenge for Rick Barnes to deal with, because while unchecked their poor decision-making can be a real drain on the offense -- be it via poor execution of sets or gobs of turnovers -- neither are we helped by those two playing tentatively.
At this point in the season, though, I think you have to live with whatever they actually do (or don't do) out there, and instruct/empower them to do what they do well. We need Myck Kabongo penetrating, earning trips to the line, and pushing the tempo where transition opportunities exist. And we need Sheldon McClellan to play like the capable scorer that he is; a remarkably high percentage of the time, when McClellan tries to score, good things happen.
Of course, in the end, we could get all the tactical stuff right and it wouldn't do us a lick of good if we don't, you know, play well. Make open shots. Hit free throws. Finish bunnies. It's a simple game like that.
If it's March, it's win-or-go-home time. It maybe just started a little bit earlier this time around.
Let's do it. Hook 'em