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Amid inconsistent season, where does Texas basketball go from here?

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The Longhorns have topped some of the nation’s top teams, but also endured some head-scratching performances. What now?

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Texas Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you probably know this is how it has to be.

As college basketball enters the dog days of the schedule, why on earth would the Texas Longhorns 2018-19 season proceed in a singular, undeniably clear direction?

Alas, Texas basketball has returned to true form — mind-boggling inconsistency.

This, as they say, is why Texas basketball fans can’t have nice things.

One minute you’re watching the Longhorns knock off No. 7 North Carolina in a premiere early-season tournament, and the next minute you’re pulling individual hairs out of your head as Texas throws up all over itself at Georgia only to bounce back with a win over No. 11 Kansas; the program’s first win over the Jayhawks in 11 tries.

But you know better.

By now, this is how it has to be.

So, what do we make of this Texas team, a stacked final stretch of conference play standing between it and the slim NCAA tournament chances that remain?

To understand where Texas is headed, you first need to look at where the Longhorns have been. Let’s look at the first half of the season and cry together, or laugh, or just stare blankly into the middle distance.

The good:

  • Texas 73, Arkansas 71
  • Texas 92, North Carolina 89
  • Texas 68, Michigan State 78
  • Texas 72, Purdue 68
  • Texas 67, Kansas State 47
  • Texas 75, Oklahoma 72
  • Texas 73, Kansas 63

The bad:

  • Texas 53, VCU 54
  • Texas, 65, Providence 71
  • Texas 62, Texas Tech 68
  • Texas 61, TCU 65

The ugly:

  • Texas 59, Radford 62
  • Texas 58, Oklahoma State 61
  • Texas 88, Georgia 98

Currently, at 12-9, Texas is projected as a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN’s bracketologist, Joe Lunardi.

After the loss to Georgia, Texas’ tournament chances dropped to roughly 30 percent, according to the ESPN broadcast. But with the win over Kansas — a game that, with a loss, would have all but chiseled the fate of this Texas season onto a cold, grey tombstone — the Longhorns are hanging around.

To bring the Longhorns’ current status to a more vivid detail, Texas basketball is every movie character that has ever flatlined, laying on the operating table with stale eyes wide open and staring into the white light above.

You know this can’t be how it ends. While all signs point to what is clearly an inevitable death, you know better, but not because the character is a fighter. No, you know that just before the life is sucked away, the defibrillators are going to charge up and jack some life back into this character, kickstarting their heart beat just before the doctor calls it off and announces a time of death.

That’s Texas basketball, and by now, you probably know this is how it has to be.

Instead of 30 percent tournament chances, Texas comes back to life just in time to force us all to comb through the wins and losses on the schedule, painfully analyzing each victory and defeat, before turning our attention to the final 10 games of the season that will determine if Texas makes the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed, destined to lose in the first round, or if the Longhorns will fizzle out and miss the big dance entirely.

The journey begins on Saturday, when the Longhorns head to Ames, Iowa for a matchup with No. 20 Iowa State. And it won’t get easier after that.

Texas still has to face the Big 12 Conference first-place Kansas State Wildcats at home, and Baylor, in Austin and in Waco. The Longhorns also get Oklahoma in Norman — an 11 a.m. tip-off because of course — Iowa State at home and Texas Tech in Lubbock. Woven into the schedule between the aforementioned matchups are three very losable games, at West Virginia and at home against Oklahoma State and TCU.

If Texas is going to make it into the NCAA tournament, Texas will need to do more than hope that Purdue continues to ascend and North Carolina and Kansas remain top-10 teams.

Quite frankly, Texas can’t finish any worse than 7-3 in the final 10 games of the season, and the Longhorns will most likely need to win at least one game in the Big 12 Conference tournament.

Don’t take this at face value, this 7-3 or better finish that Texas likely needs the rest of the way in order to make the tournament. There are levels to that record over the final 10 games of the season, specifics that will dictate whether 19-12 at the end of the regular season is quality or fraudulent.

Texas fans can’t have nice things. No, of course not. A winning record has to be analyzed and broken down because of the nature of how it was achieved, which is kind of the standard for Texas basketball. And by now, you probably know this is how it has to be.

Texas’ 7-3 record has to be the floor for this team the rest of the way, and it can’t include losses to West Virginia or Oklahoma State, and it has to include a win over Kansas State and splits with Baylor and Iowa State.

Lose to either West Virginia or Oklahoma State, you might still make a case to dance if you beat Kansas State, split with either Baylor or Iowa State, or sweep either Baylor or Iowa State. Lose to both Oklahoma State and West Virginia and, for all intents and purposes, the NCAA tournament dreams are a wrap, and if Shaka Smart thinks the outside chatter is bad now he will be rudely awakened by the fanbase calling for change if Texas misses the tournament for the second time in three years.

Below is a map. The Longhorns will go one of two ways. At the very best, Texas can make the tournament, but it wouldn’t be anything better than a No. 7 seed; a No. 6 seed if it miraculously managed to win the Big 12 tournament. At the very worst, well, you know by now.

Feb. 2: @ Iowa State - A loss here is almost expected, based on the way this season has gone up until now. But if Texas intends to build on its win against Kansas, knocking off another ranked conference top dog on the road is certainly the best supporting foundation to make the case that they belong in the big dance, and it will only add to the team’s confidence going forward.

Feb. 6: Baylor - At home? Win this game. Period.

Feb. 9: @ West Virginia - The only scenario where Texas could, somewhat, afford to lose this game is if the Longhorns beat both Iowa State and Baylor.

Feb. 12: Kansas State - The Longhorns knocked off the current Big 12 leaders at Manhattan, Kansas, and by double digits. At home, Texas must win this game.

Feb. 16: Oklahoma State - The only scenario in which Texas could, I suppose, afford to lose this game is if the Longhorns last loss prior to this matchup is Georgia. Otherwise, if Texas drops even one of the four previous contests, this is a must-win.

Feb. 23: @ Oklahoma - It’s Oklahoma. Whatever happens here simply is what it is. Free pass. Although, if you’re going to miss the tournament, you’d better make sure you at least sweep OU.

Feb. 27: @ Baylor - If Texas is going to lose one of the two against Baylor, let it be the one in Austin following two tough games against Kansas and Iowa State. Baylor, on the road, after lowly Okie Lite and OU, should be the easier task given the surrounding schedule.

Mar. 2: Iowa State - Win this game. You don’t want to head to Lubbock with a chance of losing to both of the last two (potentially) ranked opponents you’ll face all season.

Mar. 4: @ Texas Tech - This is a statement game. And if the Longhorns manage to split with Baylor and Iowa State and beat K-State at home, this could punch Texas’ ticket. There’s no better time than early March to win against a likely top ten team, on the road, when you’re in the midst of trying to prove you belong in the NCAA Tournament. Must win. Period.

Mar 9: TCU - For the seniors’ sake, this is a must win. Period.