Saturday's visit to Lawrence never should have been a must-win game. Texas' 69-64 loss to the Jayhawks should have been a tough loss that UT fans nonetheless felt pretty good about -- a tense, hard-fought, competitive battle between the conference's top two teams.
But here we are, the calendar is turning to March and Texas is squarely on the bubble -- and on the wrong side of it, work left to do. That's what happens when you don't protect your home court in this conference. Because you're not gonna get many on the road.
We almost got a big one on Saturday. The big one -- Phog Allen. There are a number of reasons why the Jayhawks have won an astounding 10 consecutive regular season Big 12 titles, but their incredible home court advantage is one of the biggest.
The Longhorns upset bid was a product of the team's best defensive effort in weeks, combined with strong offensive play from the backcourt. Led by Myles Turner (5 blocks in 29 minutes) and Prince Ibeh (4 stuffs in just 17 minutes), Texas swatted a school-record 14 Kansas shot attempts and held the Jayhawks to 36% shooting overall. And Texas' guards often did a good job of flipping the court quickly to attack in transition.
Texas enjoyed winning efforts from its entire backcourt Saturday, highlighted by Isaiah Taylor, who flirted with a triple double pace en route to a team-high 17 points, along with 6 boards and 8 assists, against just 2 turnovers. The sophomore point guard has been steadily improving over the last three weeks and put it all together on Saturday in Lawrence. In a more just universe, he'd have a 'W' to show for his efforts today.
Taylor wasn't alone, though. Demarcus Holland impressed yet again on the offensive end, where turnovers remain the lone remaining weakness he's yet to conquer. The junior combo guard provided a huge boost with his 14-point effort, which included 3-for-5 shooting from long range, the last of which was a 22-footer off an inbounds play that looked more like vintage Reggie Miller than a guy who fans roundly thought lacked the offensive ability to justify his high minutes played.
Kendal Yancy continued his late-season surge, as well, demonstrating impressive ability to take it strong to the rim and -- more unexpectedly -- stroke it from beyond the arc. After going just 7-for-30 from three-point range over the team's first 22 games this season, the sophomore has connected on 15 of 34 over the last 7 games, a stretch across which he's averaged an impressive 12.5 points per contest and shown his ceiling to be meaningfully higher than most of us realized heading into the year.
In the end, though, it was the Jayhawks who left with the win, largely owing to strong performances of their own, but aided by a friendly second half from the officials and some good old fashioned "bounce-of-the-ball" good luck. Off the top of my head, I recall three times down the stretch when Texas thwarted KU's offensive possession, only to have the blocked or missed shot ricochet fortuitously into the arms of a random Jayhawk for an uncontested score. That's just how it goes sometimes. Other times, it's your team that's benefiting from friendly bounces.
As for the friendly second half officiating... all you need to know is that KU made 15 of 19 from the charity stripe in the second half while Texas shot just 2 of 3. Worst of all, even if KU really only committed 3 team fouls in the first 16 minutes of the second half, the game might well have had a very different ending had the officials just gotten it right on the one foul call that mattered most.
Down by 2 points with 15 seconds left in the half, Texas attacked the rim with Taylor, who was blatantly hip checked by Frank Mason ten feet from the rim, only to have the officials swallow their whistles, denying Texas a chance to tie the game at the line and giving the ball back to Kansas.
Not every call went against the Longhorns and ultimately the real story Saturday was our being in a must-win position at all, but the circumstances being what they were, it was a tough way for the decisive possession to play out.
Then again, perhaps the game doesn't even come down to one play if Jonathan Holmes isn't playing crappy basketball. There's no sense in trying to sugarcoat it, because Holmes has been flat out lousy since returning from the concussion injury he suffered at the beginning of February. In the five games since he's returned, the senior has averaged just 4 points per game, connecting on just 4 of 17 from beyond the arc. No one's more frustrated than Holmes, and you can't help but feel for the guy -- few if any players to wear burnt orange have given themselves to the game and the program the way Holmes has for four strong years now -- but his fade down the stretch may well be the nail in this disappointing season's coffin.
All that being said, KU had something to do with the win, as well. It wasn't surprising to see Perry Ellis turn in an MVP effort, but in my mind the key to the Jayhawks' victory was the contributions from freshman Kelly Oubre, who brought it strong on both ends of the floor and seemed to pop up with a big rebound, steal, or bucket every time Kansas needed a boost. Kudos to KU for fending off a game Longhorns squad that really brought it hard, and for a victory that all but secures the continuation of their historic run of conference championships. Incredible, and there's nothing lucky about winning 11 straight titles. Bill Self deserves all the lavish praise he receives.
For Texas, it's kind of been do-or-die time for a while now, and as far as March Madness goes, we're flatlined and down to the defibrillators. Wins at home over Baylor and Kansas State are absolute musts, and we'll need to win at least two -- and more realistically three or four -- games in the Big 12 Tournament to have a chance at flipping over to the right side of the bubble. If you're looking for a sliver hope: this team has won and lost in bunches all year long. Might as well close with a winning streak, no?
March is here. And win-or-go-home is starting much earlier than we'd like.
So it goes. We're here, so let's do it. Six games left, six wins.
First up: Baylor. Monday night at 6:00 pm CT on ESPNU.