Down the stretch, the Texas Longhorns were faced with a bevy of games that were seemingly must-wins for Rick Barnes’ club to avoid missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
There was a point were the Longhorns were fresh off of three-straight losses in February at the hands of Oklahoma, Iowa State and West Virginia, but from that point, we started to see a much different Texas team whose efforts on the hardwood gave reason to believe they could make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, assuming they get in.
It all began with Texas’ 69-64 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in The Phog. As opposed to the team that had become as the losses piled up, where they had an apparent lack of confidence, passion and understanding in how to execute, Texas gave us our first glimpse of the team they may be growing into when the games matter the most.
Now, of course, it resulted in yet another loss, but Texas went into Lawrence where very few teams ever win and played with a sense of urgency and confidence, which led to Texas having the upper hand for the majority of the night. If Isaiah Taylor – the Longhorns second leading free throw shooter at 83 percent – didn’t clank two late free throws to potentially tie the game before the refs favored Kansas on a controversial no-call on an apparent foul on the Taylor drive to try and tie the game again, Texas likely walks away with a victory over a top-10 team in arguably the toughest place to play in all of college basketball.
In Texas’ 61-59 overtime win over No. 14 Baylor, the key was toughness and the ability to overcome adversity, which are both things the Longhorns practically haven’t displayed – with the exception of toughness in their dominating win over West Virginia – since Big 12 play has kicked off. For the most part, Baylor was in control of the game, but Texas finally showed some fight in a game where the Horns’ coming out on top has arguably become the difference in Texas being on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble today.
Against Kansas State, the Longhorns started each half with some absolutely horrid offense, but outside of their scoring woes out of the gates, they dominated with smothering defense and found some consistency and fluidity on offense that has been non-existent for the vast majority of the season. This led to Texas cruising to a 62-49 victory over the Wildcats.
And then we’ve got the Iowa State loss. Of course, their collapse down the stretch, where the offense got completely stagnant and stood around trying to run out the clock in an effort that was more like trying not to lose than trying to win, but outside of that effort, Texas arguably played their best basketball of the season. For about 32 minutes, the Texas offense was clicking on all cylinders and scoring with relative ease. Their defense held Georges Niang and Iowa State’s potent offense to only 14 points with 3:29 to play in the first half, which led to a 36-25 halftime lead.
In the second half, Texas was able to answer nearly every Cyclones scoring spurt with one of their own in a back-and-forth shootout. I get it; the game is 40 minutes and they only played really well for about 35 of those and that’s what matters. But you have to consider that this team has seemingly learned from their recent failures and has shown some very encouraging signs as we head into the NCAA Tournament.
Their loss to Iowa State was the first time this season that they were up on an elite team in a hostile atmosphere and any Longhorns’ fan who was watching Texas try and hold onto the lead was watching those precious second tick off the clock just as closely. Some bonehead mistakes later – such as the Taylor 10-second call and Cameron Ridley’s travel after the offense rebound – and Texas still was in position to win the game with the ball with only seconds to play.
I understand everyone being distraught about Javan Felix heaving and bricking a three pointer with 9.2 seconds to play when the obvious option would be to hold for the final shot and force overtime as the worst-case scenario, but my common sense suggest that if Texas is faced with the exact same scenario in the last four minutes of an elimination game again, they’ll handle things much differently.
Luckily for Texas, they should still find themselves in the NCAA Tournament, as Joe Lunardi now has them as one of the "Last Four Byes" as a 12-seed in the East Bracket. If Texas can sneak into the tourney, there shouldn’t be any question that Texas isn’t going to be a team that anyone will be salivating at the opportunity to play in the early going. They’re 3-2 in their last five games and have come within a few seconds and some unfortunate luck from being 5-0 during this stretch with three wins over ranked teams, including the two clubs participating in the Big 12 Championship today.
I know this has been a frustrating season to follow and many fans have understandably run out of optimism. But this is March Madness, where anything can happen and based off of the positives I’ve seen from this team over the past few weeks, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Texas snag a few wins before this exhausting season finally draws to a close.