This could probably go without saying, but if there were ever a time for Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns to string together a few wins, it’s now.
What was once an acceptable 14-10 (6-5) record in the not too distant past on the strength of three wins in four games has since slumped to 15-13 (7-8) behind the exact opposite — three losses in four games, including back-to-back road defeats at the hands of Oklahoma and Baylor. Worse yet, the two losses came by a combined three points — such a minute margin is all that separates Texas from a 17-11 effort and the current conundrum Smart’s Longhorns find themselves in, scrapping to simply survive and sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
VIDEO: Shaka Smart was visibly emotional opening his postgame presser. He later pointed to the disparity on the glass. Baylor had as many offensive rebounds (19) as Texas had defensive rebounds.— Jeff Barker (@JeffBarker_) February 28, 2019
"It just a heartbreaker. Baylor deserves credit for the way they battled back." pic.twitter.com/cG1W3qO7PM
Close, heartbreaking defeats matter not now, though. Texas can’t erase any of its 13 losses, which have come by an average margin of 4.6 points; potentially positive news, as scoring margin will be considering in the new NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET. The Horns can, however, find ways to win when it matters most, at least in regards to Texas’ NCAA Tournament résumé.
That said, there’s potentially encouraging and discouraging news to that end.
On the bright side, Texas has been here before, or at least tremendously close, and still danced. Last season, the Longhorns were 16-12 at this juncture, and faced with similar circumstances — find ways to win or risk not getting in. Texas, of course, went on to win three of its next four games before falling to No. 14 Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament, and thus, the Horns were rewarded with a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
These days, despite three losses in four games, Smart’s squad is projected as a 9-seed in ESPN’s Bracketology, and the Longhorns are averaging a 10-seed projection per Bracket Matrix. Simply put, if the Big Dance were to begin today, Texas’ ticket would be punched, likely thanks in large part to a considerable strength of schedule — KenPom has Texas No. 14 in SOS, while CBS slots Texas as high as No. 4 — and résumé-bolstering wins over No. 7 North Carolina, Purdue, which is now a top-15 team, Kansas State, which is also now ranked, No. 20 Oklahoma, and No. 11 Kansas.
Good news, right?
Well, just because Texas is projected to sneak into the tourney as of today doesn’t mean that will remain the case once Selection Sunday arrives. In the meantime, Texas likely needs at least two, if not three more wins to ensure it won’t be left on the outside looking in, as evident by ESPN dubbing Texas as a team with work to do before the Big Dance.
Despite playing without both Kerwin Roach II (suspension) and Dylan Osetkowski (illness), the Longhorns nearly recorded their first Quad 1 win in almost a month at Baylor. As it happens, however, UT fell short 84-83 and now sits at 15-13 overall and 7-8 in Big 12 play. If you’re thinking those numbers don’t add up to a No. 10 seed in the making, keep in mind Texas has some beautiful entries on its profile from earlier in the season, up to and including its neutral-floor win over North Carolina and home victories over Purdue and Kansas. The suspension of Roach introduces an element of uncertainty, but this is a team that proved in Waco it can still hit 15 3s in 45 minutes and score points in bunches.
Prior to the Big 12 Tournament getting underway on March 13, the Longhorns will likely be underdogs in each of their three remaining regular-season matchups, as Texas will host Iowa State (20-8, 9-6) on Saturday, then travel to visit No. 11 Texas Tech (23-5, 11-4) before closing the regular season at home against TCU (18-10, 6-9).
The Longhorns are 0-3 against that trio this season.
Not to mention, the Horns may be required to navigate this crucial stretch without leading scorer Kerwin Roach II (15 PPG), who’s been suspended for the previous two games. It remains unclear when the senior will rejoin the team, if at all.
Though Texas’ odds to overcome this stretch and come out on the other side dancing aren’t ideal, they aren’t exactly overwhelming either. Not yet, at least.