Column: NCAA Tournament still within reach for turbulent Texas team

Dalton Phillips

Texas excelled in its return to the Frank Erwin Center on Monday night.

A surging Iowa State team that had just beaten Texas Tech by 18 was dispatched rather easily as the Longhorns never trailed in their 73-57 victory.

The game saw head coach Shaka Smart abandon the three-forward lineup in favor of moving the sharpshooting freshman Jase Febres to the wing. It’s unclear whether Smart read last week’s column from the win over then-No. 8 Texas Tech, which suggested a similar shakeup, but the new lineup looked much smoother on both ends of the ball.

Offensively, the spacing of a third shooter gave junior forward Dylan Osetkowski and freshman forward Mo Bamba plenty of room to operate in the paint. On the first play of the game, the Longhorns ran an inside-out set with Osetkowski that generated a good look for freshman guard Matt Coleman
cutting to the lane.

On the ensuing possession, Osetkowski caught the ball on the same left block and spun on the baseline for an easy two-handed dunk. The defender that previously would have rotated off freshman forward Jericho Sims’ man was forced to stay attached to Febres outside, and Osetkowski punished the lack of help defense.

It is clear Smart is making Osetkowski a focal point in the offense again — and with good reason. He, along with junior guard Kerwin Roach II, are the only Longhorns who are able to generate a shot for themselves with any regularity.

The additional spacing also worked wonders for Bamba and Roach, players who thrive with an open lane when getting to the rim. Bamba and Roach scored career-highs with the smaller lineup, contributing 46 of Texas’ 73 points on the night.

Despite the win, the team still remains a rollercoaster of inconsistency. On any given night, fans aren’t sure whether they’re getting the Longhorns that beat TCU and Texas Tech or the team that collapsed on the road against West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Location plays a role, but the massive disparity from game to game has made it impossible to build any kind of consistency this season.

Part of the up-and-down performances stem from the fact that Texas seems to win and lose by Roach’s hand. He is the only guard right now able to consistently create for himself and his teammates.

Coleman is a promising prospect, but the freshman point guard is still adjusting to the pace of the college game. In his last two outings, Coleman has shot a dismal 2-of-12 from the floor to go along with six assists and four turnovers. It’s clear he’s going to be the leader for Texas in the near future, but he’s not there yet.

All but 17 of Texas’ points against Iowa State on Monday night came from Bamba, Roach and Osetkowski. The team can’t continue to rely on career nights from its stars to get them past average Big 12 opponents. If the Longhorns are serious about finding success, Smart is going to have to find a way to unlock potential from the rest of the roster.

Ten conference games remain for Texas, including road matchups with TCU, Kansas and Oklahoma. The Longhorns are thoroughly in the middle of the pack through their first eight Big 12 games, with a chance to climb the rankings for an NCAA Tournament  bid — or slide back toward last season’s mediocrity.