This. Is. March.
The best time of the college basketball season is upon us, and the Texas Longhorns are a lock to go dancing. But Texas enters the Big 12 Tournament, and ultimately the NCAA Tournament, under some less than ideal circumstances and will need some improvement in key areas if they hope to dance for more than a single game.
To that end, here’s a few thoughts as Texas enters the coming tourneys.
Consistency remains a concern, and that’s a bigger concern when it’s win or go home. Ideally, Texas would love to repeat as Big 12 Tournament champs. But that would require three wins in three days. Texas hasn’t won three consecutive games since January as part of a stretch that capped with the win over No. 19 Tennessee. Prior to that, Texas’ last such streak capped at six wins on Jan. 4 with the help of some underwhelming competition in non-conference play. To be sure, the nature of the Big 12 makes it incredibly difficult to win game after game after game. But suddenly surging and winning three straight in Kansas City, or doing a bit of the same in the big dance — much less becoming that “Monday night” team Chris Beard aims for Texas to be — seems especially unlikely given the Horns’ inability to string together winning streaks during the season. This team has proven they can win a big game on any given night, but they failed to follow that up win another win, and then another. And that’s exactly what’s needed in March.
Texas could certainly benefit from a win or two in the Big 12 tourney. A win isn’t necessary to secure a bid to the big dance — Texas is going dancing, it’s just a matter of what seed they’ll earn. But more so, Texas ended the regular season with back-to-back losses — yes, they were close losses to elite teams, but close losses end seasons, just see look back to Abilene Christian last season, Nevada in 2018, or Northern Iowa in 2016. The recent losses to Kansas and Baylor make for three losses in five games down the stretch, and failing to find even one win in Kansas City adds insult to injury. Texas will get a TCU team that they swept during the regular season, and they’ll need to keep that streak going in hopes of a major momentum-building revenge win over Kansas, assuming the Jayhawks advance. If not, well entering the NCAA Tournament riding a three-game losing streak isn’t exactly what you’d call ideal.
It’s time for some of Texas’ top players to perform like it. In Marcus Carr’s last five games, he’s had outings of 13, 15, and 19 points, but also produced a goose egg against Texas Tech and tallied just five points in the OT loss to Kansas. Not surprisingly, Texas dropped both of the games he struggled in. Christian Bishop, who’s now in a larger role with Tre Mitchell leaving the program, had just three points in two of his last six games, and only six in another. Courtney Ramey’s season-high 18 points against Kansas was the first time he’s cracked double figures since Texas loss in Lubbock — that was on Feb. 1. Similar inconsistencies have been evident with Timmy Allen, who’s fresh off of a 2-of-15 effort in Lawrence. Chris Beard built a roster of high-level transfers, and retained a couple key contributors, who have voiced their goal of winning in March. Winning means that individually, they simply have to be better than they’ve been on a nightly basis. Texas’ defense, depth, and just general talent level is certainly enough that they can steal a win somewhere, but if Texas is going to make any noise whatsoever in the coming weeks, Texas’ best players need to be at least close to the best versions of themselves — consistently.
What defines a successful March Madness run? I might be in the minority here, but I don’t even think it needs to be a “run.” As a program, Texas hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since topping Arizona State in 2014, and that was the Horns’ only tourney win that season. That was the program’s first tourney win since 2011, a season that also ended win just one win in the big dance. You have to go all the way back to Texas’ Elite 8 run in 2008 to find a time when they’ve made it past the first weekend. So, March has, in fact, been maddening for the past decade and a half if you’re a Longhorn. Sure, you’d expect this veteran group to be able to find just two wins in the tourney, but that’s always easier said than done, and given Texas’ tourney drought, even one win would be better than the burnt orange faithful have seen in recent years.
A final thought on expectations... This was a bit of a weird season for a variety of reasons. Texas, as a team, never matched the potential of its parts. In hindsight, the projected potential of this team was probably too high to begin with, and we weren’t able to truly learn too much throughout the non-conference slate as Texas just overwhelmed a bunch of inferior opponents. But to see the forest for the trees, this was Year 1 of the Chris Beard era. New coach. A small army of new transfers, including a key transfer who left the program, as did a four-star freshman. The mass roster overhaul and sheer number of bodies seemed to complicate the comfort level for just about everyone, and that was the key question entering the season — could this group gel? It wasn’t to the level of the preseason No. 5 ranking, but in looking back at Beard insisting that this wouldn’t be a rebuild during his introductory press conference and given the chore of completely rebuilding the shell of a roster he inherited, Texas did well. The initial expectations make the outcome feel underwhelming, but the outcome was the program’s first 20-win regular season since 2016, and this group actually won one more game — 21 vs. 20. When Shaka Smart departed for Marquette and Texas saw its roster purged by graduations, the NBA Draft, and recruits being released from their NLI, it felt like Beard would have been lucky to match Texas’ 11-win effort in 2016-17. Now, he’s entering March with a team that’s won more regular season games than any Texas team since 2014. So, however the season ends, it will be better than most probably anticipated when he was introduced as the Horns’ head coach.