The Texas Longhorns are playing pretty well. With a 6-3 conference record and two tough road wins already in the books, there is significant reason for optimism in Austin. But the road ahead is tough, because February is here.
The conference season is a difficult slog. Shaka Smart's team is half way through it, along with the rest of the teams in the Big 12. Half still remains.
When confronted by Texas' schedule for its final nine games, one quickly surmises just how hard it is. The only comfort is that no one else in the conference really has it much easier. Except perhaps the Oklahoma Sooners, who are spared the trouble of playing against themselves.
It is a good time to look ahead at the remaining slate of games for the Longhorns, so that we can understand what their prospects are down the stretch.
2/6/16 -- Texas Tech (Home)
The Longhorns lost the previous match up between these two teams, but since that game was played the Raiders haven't exactly set the league on fire. Texas Tech is a pretty good team struggling in an impossibly difficult conference. Without a complete transformation Tubby Smith's team won't make the NCAA tournament this year, but a young roster suggests that they could be in the hunt a season from now.
This is probably the easiest win on Texas' schedule. But Tech is good enough to beat the Longhorns; we know that because it has already happened.
2/8/16 -- Oklahoma (Road)
Because of the structure of the Big 12 schedule, Texas has yet to face the Sooners, and will play them twice in the last nine games. The Longhorn's trip to Norman kicks off what looks to be the most difficult week of the month for coach Smart's squad, with two road games.
If you haven't yet caught an OU game, they appear to be the best team in the Big 12, and may well be the best in the entire country. Buddy Hield is currently an easy favorite to pick up most of the national player of the year honors, and he and his compatriots lead D-I in three point shooting percentage.
This appears the most difficult of Texas' remaining games. After playing in a conference ruled by Kansas for so many years, OU appears to have the edge on the Jayhawks, and looks like a decent bet to win the league.
2/13/16 -- Iowa State (Road)
Allen Fieldhouse is justifiably considered the most difficult road venue in the conference. Hilton Coliseum is an easy choice for number two. The Cyclones don't lose very often at home (although both Baylor and West Virginia have won in Ames this year).
One of the stranger aspects of following the Big 12 is getting a feel for the different fan bases. While each fan base is diverse, there are certain characteristics that make the Iowa State fan base a little different. Easily the most amusing is their tendency to boo the strangest stuff.
A foul call goes against the Cyclones that, let's be honest, isn't really close? Booooo.
Georges Niang picks up his pivot foot before dribbling and gets whistled? Booooo.
An opposing player slips on a wet spot and the officials call out a ball boy to wipe it up? BOOOOOOO!!!!!!
Iowa State fans do this all the time, but don't let it bother you; it is just their thing. You should let them have their fun. The Hilton crowd is wild and largely disconnected from reality. But it works for them.
2/16/16 -- West Virginia (Home)
The Longhorns already won the more difficult game of their two against West Virginia. And later this month they will host the Mountaineers in Austin.
You might recall that first game. It featured a few fouls. But that is just how West Virginia games go. Bob Huggins' team has drawn more fouls than any team in the conference, and also has fouled more than any team in the conference.
The Mountaineers have been good on the road so far during league play, winning four road games, including an 81-76 victory at Hilton, so don't count them out in Austin.
2/20/16 -- Baylor (Home)
You can make the argument that the Longhorns' most impressive win came last Monday night against Baylor. Sure, the Longhorns have defeated North Carolina, but that game was at home. And Texas' road win at West Virginia looks really good on a resume, but that game was just so strange -- with a foul called on average every 57 seconds -- that it created almost a perfect set of conditions for a road upset.
But there are no qualifiers that need to be attached to the win at Baylor. It was a tough competitive game played between two teams giving each other their best shots. It was high level basketball, and the Longhorns won. On the road.
Surely the Bears will be eager for the rematch. Let's hope that this one is as entertaining as the first.
2/22/16 -- Kansas State (Road)
Kansas State is probably out of the hunt for the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats could still in theory win enough games to get in, but it is probably a bridge too far. But they are still having a quietly decent year (after a total meltdown last season), and will probably be a real pain in the ass for one or more teams in the NIT.
And it won't be easy for the Longhorns on a Monday night in the Octagon of Doom. This is a game that either team is perfectly capable of winning. And that isn't so bad for Texas; a month ago I would have told you that this was a likely loss for the Longhorns.
2/27/16 -- Oklahoma (Home)
If things play out following current expectations, this will be a game for the Longhorns where a win will either seal the deal for an NCAA tournament at-large bid, or start talk about where Shaka Smart's men could be seeded.
But this won't be an easy win, as right now it is possible that Texas will be an actual underdog at home in this game. (So many "shocking upsets" in college basketball aren't real upsets; when a team loses on the road you should never really be shocked.)
2/29/16 -- Kansas (Home)
That is right, this is a leap year. The last week of the conference season will start off with a Big Monday match up against Kansas. A whole host of scenarios coming into this game are possible. The Longhorns could be a runaway freight train playing in front of the rare sell-out Erwin Center crowd. Or Shaka Smart's men could be staggering towards the end of another long, hard February.
Right now, optimism is running high. But this game feels so far in the distant future, and season ups and downs come so quickly, so who really knows. Think about the emotional journey that you have already been on in just the last month. That could all happen again in February.
If Texas is rolling, this game and the prior one against OU will be games that Austin residents will not want to miss. Because while a jacked up Erwin Center doesn't happen often, it does occasionally happen. And if Texas keeps things rolling, it will likely happen two times in a row in late February. So maybe start looking for tickets now?
3/4/16 -- Oklahoma State (Road)
Ah, finally. The long season comes to an end, and the post season starts. But first, a team that may be starting to think about the other parts of March has to go on the road and play in a venue that has already taken down the mighty Jayhawks.
Road games are never easy, particularly when they are the last game of the season.
But let's not look too far ahead. February can be a lot of fun.