In or out? On or off?
As the calendar inexorably advances towards March, fans programs around the country look to bracketology to provide perspective on positioning for the NCAA tournament. For the Texas Longhorns, that means a spot solidly on the bubble with four regular-season games remaining.
According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, Saturday’s win over Oklahoma didn’t help seeding for Texas — the ‘Horns are still one of the last four teams in and forecast to play Syracuse in Dayton for the right to face off with a No. 5 seed.
Establishing positive forward momentum in the Big 12 hasn’t been easy for the ‘Horns, as Smart’s team is still trying to find consecutive wins in conference play. The inconsistency heightened the recent frustration and the raised stakes in every game moving forward after Texas lost three straight contests in the space of five days. The difference between the Longhorns and those opponents? Eight total points.
So everything matters with the margins that small — every turnover, every missed basket, every defensive breakdown. Every moment of less than full mental focus and intensity.
On Monday, Smart said he finally got a sense of urgency from his team after a notable lull following the first victory over Oklahoma. Star freshman forward Mo Bamba in particular took it upon himself to make an impact on the game by securing every rebound that came within his significant radius, finishing with a career high of 18.
He took to heart the exhortations of Smart and his assistants to flip the switch mentally and control the things that each individual player can control. Doing so showed the continued maturation of Bamba — the Texas head coach described him as upset after the Baylor loss. Instead of sulking and being down, Bamba dominated the glass in the next game.
If the challenge after the last several games was effectively channeling the negative energy and frustration from losing, the team must now avoid another letdown after an important victory.
“We’re not going to dwell too much on Oklahoma and this is something that I felt, I just thought we did not do a good job of turning the page,” Smart said. “After a good win, you’ve got another good team in the Big 12.”
On Wednesday, that team will be Kansas State. In Manhattan, a notoriously difficult environment Wildcat fans affectionately refer to as the “Octagon of Doom.” Smart knows that having a chance to win in that atmosphere will require better play on both ends of the court than the ‘Horns displayed in the first match up.
Early turnovers led to easy baskets for Kansas State. And though the defense can waver at times for the Wildcats, Smart praised Bruce Weber’s ability as a coach and noted that that his group does an excellent job of taking away the first option for an opposing offense. Pressure on the ball and strategic double teams, particularly late in the game against Bamba, also helped cause 10 steals for Kansas State. In fact, Bamba, freshman point guard Matt Coleman, junior guard Kerwin Roach II, and junior forward Dylan Osetkowski combined for 15 of the team’s 16 turnovers.
Limiting live-ball turnovers isn’t an easy task against the opportunistic Wildcats, as Weber’s team ranks No. 6 nationally in steal percentage. Bamba in particular struggled, as Kansas State threw a variety of double teams against him in Austin when Texas tried to work the ball inside late. Two of those turnovers came on consecutive possessions, starting when Kansas State held a 55-54 lead. Both lead to breakaway layups. The ‘Horns never regained the lead as the win probability for the visiting team skyrocketed.
Defensively, the ‘Horns weren’t able to stop any of the starters for the Wildcats — all scored in double figures. The quickness and hesitation move of Cartier Diarra was a particularly devastating combo, forcing Smart to reiterate to his players to stay down in their defensive stances when an offensive player hesitates on a drive. The defensive breakdowns extended to pick-and-roll situations, with five or six instances in which the roll man scored uncontested baskets around the rim.
Mental and physical fatigue plays a role, too, especially for young teams. Just look at Young’s struggles over the last several weeks — at one point against Texas, he’d missed 20 straight three pointers. In a league like the Big 12, though, there are no excuses or any days off, but that also provides opportunity.
When Smart coached at VCU, several weeks could pass between games that would bolster the Rams resume for the postseason. Playing in the Big 12, that chance presents itself nearly every game, but it also means consistently playing teams hungry for wins.
Right now, Lunardi has two other Big 12 teams among the last four byes or last four in, with Kansas State and Baylor joining Texas in that group. Even Oklahoma State, which sits ninth in the conference standings, has recent wins over Kansas and West Virginia.
So, which team is hungrier on Wednesday? The answer to that question could well determine the outcome as the ‘Horns once again battle to get off the bubble and avoid the play-in game.