Texas hopes to separate from the Big 12 pack

Evan Berkowitz

Before winter break, the men’s basketball team was breezing through the season. It was No. 6 in the polls, and its only loss was to top-ranked Kentucky on its home court in Lexington, Kentucky.

People were labeling the Longhorns as the front-runners to end Kansas’ decade-long perch atop the Big 12 standings.

But then they lost to Stanford, struggled against Texas Tech, lost badly to No. 19 Oklahoma and then to Oklahoma State. Texas looked lost at times on offense, and its once-dominant defense began to look vulnerable.

“The most disappointing thing is that I don’t think we’ve played well in three weeks,” head coach Rick Barnes said after the blowout loss to Oklahoma at home.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Taylor hasn’t looked the same since breaking his wrist in the game against Iowa in November. Before the injury, he averaged 15 points and four rebounds per game. Since returning, he’s averaging 9.2 points per game and just a touch over three rebounds per game. He looks timid attacking the rim, something he used to do fearlessly.

Junior center Cameron Ridley looked like a shell of his former self before breaking out against West Virginia.

Senior forward Jonathan Holmes went 2-of-19 in the back-to-back losses to the Oklahoma schools.

It appeared as though the team lost its identity.

“We haven’t been playing well these past couple of weeks,” junior guard Demarcus Holland said after the Oklahoma loss. “We really just have to figure out who we are. Get back to basics of how we started — just playing defense and out-rebounding teams. [We need to be] blue-collar players and go out there and execute what the coaches have laid out for us.”

But Barnes wasn’t worried.

“We’re going to be all right,” Barnes said. “We have a long way to go, but it goes back to this: We’ve proved that we can play harder, we can be focused, and we can execute.”

After a 77-50 win over No. 16 West Virginia and a 66-48 win against TCU, Texas seems to have found its groove and at least be a contender for the Big 12 crown.

Taylor must regain his old form. Ridley must continue to be a force. Holmes can’t disappear in big games. Freshman forward Myles Turner, who is averaging 2.7 blocks per game, needs to keep being himself.

Texas (14-4, 3-2 Big 12) is not far off the Big 12 lead, which Kansas State (11-7, 4-1) holds, but a plethora of teams challenge that top spot. Eight of the 10 Big 12 teams have already won two conference games — only TCU and Texas Tech appear to be out of it right now.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier, as the Longhorns will consecutively battle No. 11 Kansas, No. 9 Iowa State and then No. 21 Baylor. Six Big 12 teams are ranked in, arguably, the deepest conference in the nation.  

With a tough stretch, Texas is looking to separate itself from the pack.