The 15-8 Texas Longhorns’ season was seemingly hanging in the balance in Manhattan, Kansas Saturday night, as Rick Barnes’ club was trudging through four straight losses and had dropped six of their previous eight games. The earlier portion of the schedule included such high expectations for the Longhorns, with some believing the depth, experience and star potential of the Longhorns could lead them to a Final Four appearance after playing No. 1 Kentucky tough in Lexington without their floor general, Isaiah Taylor.
But conference play has been all-but pleasant for Texas, and the once hopeful murmurs of this team’s potential reduced to discussions of a talented team that’s vastly underperforming. However, despite the odds not appearing to be in Texas’ favor, there’s still plenty of time for Barnes to get this team on the right track and turn this season into one that can be considered a success.
The Longhorns’ much-needed 61-57 victory over Kansas State came as one that could become a springboard for the reminder of the season. Next week’s slate features rematches with two teams Texas has already beaten this season with the Big 12’s bottom-feeders, TCU and Texas Tech, visiting Austin on Wednesday and Saturday. Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix should be available again after the two have had to miss Texas’ win over Kansas State after suffering from lingering concussion symptoms, which will only aid the Longhorns in two must-win games where they will be the convincing favorite.
An even greater sign of optimism is Taylor starting to play at the elite level that was expected of him before missing 10 games with a fractured wrist that he suffered in Texas’ win over Iowa. Although Texas has gone 2-4 over this stretch, the last six games for Taylor have resulted in averages of 18.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.3 boards. He’s starting to play with a greater sense of responsibility and aggressiveness on the offensive end, and if Texas has realistic aspirations of turning this season around making some noise from this point forward, this will have to be the standard Texas’ star point guard play lives up to for the remainder of the season.
The upcoming week is one that Texas has to use as a building block for some wins, some confidence and some momentum. There’s simply no way around it. Following their games with TCU and Texas Tech, the Longhorns will enter a stretch of five-straight ranked opponents, which includes No. 21 Oklahoma, No. 11 Iowa State, No. 15 West Virginia, No. 8 Kansas and No. 19 Baylor, with Texas seeing the Sooners, Mountaineers and Jayhawks on the road. Of these five – whom Texas has already played the first half of their season series with – their only victory came in convincing fashion at home over West Virginia.
To say the Longhorns have a Texas-sized obstacle in front of them would be putting it rather lightly.
Although Barnes and his staff are facing an uphill battle, it’s far too early to reach for the panic button and count Texas out this season. In ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, he has the Longhorns sitting with a No. 9 seed in the West bracket. It isn’t the most glamorous prediction seeding, but it serves as a perfect example of how much breathing room Texas has before falling their chances at the NCAA Tournament start to diminish. And for simple reference, last season’s Kentucky Wildcats – who ultimately lost in the National Championship runner up – entered March Madness with an No. 8 seed, and were at one point struggling with a talented team with a 15-5 record.
Now, of course, Texas’ road from this point forward is much more daunting than the one Kentucky faced in their season turnaround, but as Big 12 play has indicated this season, any team can get hot at any point and put together a string of impressive wins. Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State have all hit a stride as of late and added a few wins over ranked teams to their tournament résumé. Texas has the talent to do the same, but it’s just a matter of Barnes getting this group to finally get in sync and play to their strengths.
Outside of a total collapse before Selection Sunday, Texas will still have an opportunity to play another day in March Madness. If the Longhorns can add a few key wins before the end of the regular season, and carry that momentum on into the Big 12 Tournament and snag a win or two, there will again be plenty of reasons to consider Texas a dangerous team in tournament play.
Yes, they’ve hit a rough patch as of late and wins have been few and far between, but there’s no reason to throw the towel in on this season just yet. There’s still plenty of competitive basketball to be played.