I can understand if anyone watching Texas play the last few games is frustrated: "Where's this team been all year?!"
This group has taken a while to jell -- and are playing a dangerous game of chicken on the bubble because of it -- but hey, if this team really is peaking right now? That's kind of great, right? Not that you would ever plan your season to play out the way Texas' has, but it raises a number of interesting questions.
First, assuming a season results in an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, would you rather your team be a better seeded team that hit its peak in January or a team that received a worse seed but hit its stride heading into the Tournament? There's no clean answer here, but it's hard not to be encouraged watching this team start to put all the pieces together right before it's time to play the most important games of the year.
And second, if Texas squeaks into the Tournament as, say, an 11 seed, would we be the scariest double-digit seed in Tournament history? How would you like to be a team like, well, Iowa -- presently projected by many to receive a 6 or 7 seed -- and you do the thing where you all clap politely as Greg Gumbel calls your name, and then a moment later adds, "The Hawkeyes will be playing a regular season rematch, as they'll draw the Longhorns of the University of Texas." And then the camera switches to Austin and an explosion of celebration, complete with Prince Ibeh thrusting his pelvis as he mimics spanking Iowa's ass a second time. That has to seriously suck, right?
Anyway, some fun stuff to think about. MOVING ON.
None of this will be so amusing if our next game thread is for an opening round NIT game at the Erwin Center, but Texas can all but secure its invitation with a win this evening over the team that I probably consider the favorites to cut down the nets in Kansas City: Iowa State. Particularly with Perry Ellis banged up for KU, no one would be shocked if the Cyclones were to defend their Big 12 Tourney title.
If they do, they'll have earned it, though, as they're drawing a Longhorns team that looks more like one of the top four teams in the conference that it was projected to be rather than the one that coughed up four L's on its home floor.
One of those losses was to Iowa State, when the Cyclones took advantage of a disjointed Texas defense on ball screens and buried us beneath a barrage of three pointers. The Horns can and must do better with their perimeter defense, but the Cyclones are going to fire off shots from beyond the arc and make no mistake: if they connect on 50% or more of those attempts again tonight? We're not gonna win this game. Last year, when Iowa State ripped K-State, Kansas, and Baylor in succession to win the Big 12 Tournament? They fired 52 three-point attempts and made 27. If they pull that off again, seriously: it's over. They'll win it. And if they carry that forward into the NCAA Tournament? They may well win that, too.
So yeah, we're talking about a really, really dangerous team. When Iowa State is firing on all cylinders, they're among the toughest teams to beat in the country -- that's how valuable it is to be scoring three points at a time.
Rick, any thoughts on our opponent?
There you have it. Rick agrees: we'll need to defend tonight.
I would add "without fouling" to the end of that, though. We need to defend tonight without fouling. Across just two games in the regular season, the Cyclones shot a preposterous 47 more free throws than the Horns did. Forty. Seven. That's... good grief, that's absurd. Needless to say, if we're on the wrong end of a double-digit margin in free throws tonight, we're not moving off that bubble before Sunday.
A loss tonight wouldn't be shocking and may not be decisive with respect to our NCAA Tournament fate. Iowa State is a damn good basketball team, and we could play really well and still wind up with a loss. That said, damn would it feel great to win this one tonight. A win would feel a lot like the one we got in the quarterfinals of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, when J'Onions and Co. locked up their NCAA bid with a win over Royce White and the Cyclones. Win tonight, and we're a great bet to get in.
Whatever happens, it's a lot of fun to watch this team right now. Give both the players and Barnes credit: down to their last breath, losers of four straight games, it would have been easy for them to fall apart. Instead they fought like hell to dig out a win over Baylor in OT and since then have looked more relaxed than ever, playing hard but having fun. They look determined and focused, but loose. And that's showing up in their results -- better ball movement, more transition opportunities, and lots of buckets in the paint. Dunks galore. And when that's happening, suddenly your guards have a lot more space to shoot threes.
Oh, one other thing, The Taylor kid who dribbles a lot and makes passes and can't be guarded and stuff. He's looked different lately, no? Like he's finally hitting his groove after that injury. Who knew, but having an unguardable point guard who's equally happy dropping a dime and finishing at the rim is mildly helpful. And for that matter, I'll go ahead and say it: having the best player on the floor? Turns out that's a good thing, too. Counterintuitive, but true.
Of course, Hoiberg's got a couple guys who can wear that name tag, too. So I guess the only question left is: who's it gonna be?
If it's our guy, we'll win. Let's win.
Keep breathing, Texas. Just. Keep. Breathing.