After a resume-boosting road win over the No. 16 Oklahoma Sooners on Thursday, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns are back in the state of Texas to finish the regular season with a fourth straight game away from the Erwin Center against the TCU Horned Frogs on Sunday.
At 12-12 and ranked No. 126 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric, Sunday’s game, which tips off at 6 p.m Central on Big 12 Now/ESPN+, isn’t a contest that will help solidify a high seed for Texas in the NCAA Tournament. But taking care of business in Fort Worth would demonstrate a level of consistency that the Longhorns haven’t had in recent years — avoiding bad losses.
Right now, the lowest-ranked team in adjusted efficiency to beat Texas is Oklahoma State at No. 37. For some perspective, that’s the Cowboys team that ranks 17th in the AP Poll and boasts the probable No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. The Longhorns dropped that game in double overtime thanks to the late-game shotmaking of that star player, Cade Cunningham.
So while every loss is frustrating, especially games that featured big comebacks by opponents like West Virginia and Texas Tech, those defeats were virtually inevitable thanks to the quality of the Big 12 this year — Texas has played 14 of its 23 games against top-40 opponents this season, an astounding 60 percent. Even a team like Michigan playing in the nation’s best conference this year, the Big Ten, has played 10 of its 21 games against top-40 opponents. Houston, a potential three seed, has only played one.
Acknowledging that reality isn’t meant as an excuse for not finishing games — the three weeks without a full-team practice in January and another week lost to the winter storms serve much better in that regard — but merely an attempt to understand the context of this season and the quality of opponent Texas faced the majority of the time it took the court this season.
Close losses in winnable games, like the defeat in Morgantown and both losses to Texas Tech, surely do matter for Texas and loom as the primary reason why the Longhorns are trying to land a four seed instead of locked in as a two or three seed.
But what matters now is maintaining the rhythm head coach Shaka Smart’s team has demonstrated at times in the recent 5-2 stretch, even in the losses. After all, the only way to mitigate the impact of those defeats is to enter the postseason playing well.
“This time of the year, the best teams that make it far in the NCAA Tournament are playing in the best rhythm. So, it’s about just getting in a rhythm as a team and just solidifying what we want to do each and every game,” junior guard Courtney Ramey said after Thursday’s win. “Today was a good step in the right direction, what we want to do. There are certain things that we can get better at. We’re going to watch film and practice and stuff like that. I think we’re getting closer and closer and closer to having that rhythm that we need to.”
Three weeks ago, Texas turned in the type of performance needed on Sunday against TCU as four players scored in double figures, led by 19 points from redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones. After scoring 13 or more points in 12 straight games, Jones fell into a slump that featured an inability to score double digits in three of five contests as he lost his touch from distance.
An efficient performance from Jones against Oklahoma that featured a much higher level of aggressiveness getting into the paint and 2-for-2 shooting from beyond the arc provided some hope that he can contribute at a high level during the postseason, starting with another good game against TCU.
The Longhorns have a 78-percent win probability for Sunday’s game, according to KenPom.com, with a projected margin of 75-67.