Longhorns still have realistic path to NCAA Tournament

Wills Layton

Texas men’s basketball began the year with a four-game winning streak, including a win over then-ranked Purdue on the road. It seemed as if after several years of mediocrity the Longhorns were finally living up to their potential. After finishing the nonconference schedule with 10 wins, many thought the team’s success would translate to the Big 12 slate.

So far, it hasn’t. 

In the first six games of Big 12 conference play, the Longhorns have missed opportunities to pick up key wins against ranked opponents, given up leads at home and have been blown out on the road, leading to a 2–4 record.

Inconsistency has plagued Texas throughout the start of conference play. In some instances, the Longhorns have let first-half leads slip away. In others, Texas has rallied from double-digit halftime deficits only to come up short. With injuries in the frontcourt piling up — sophomore forwards Gerald Liddell and Kamaka Hepa are out indefinitely — Texas will have to work harder to compensate. 

“It’s easy when you get to this time of year to just start to think about the next game, but we have to really put the deposits in,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said at a press conference on Monday. “With a couple of guys banged up, we’re playing some lineups that haven’t played a lot together. So we have to really, really have a great day today and then build on it and be better tomorrow.” 

However, despite riding a three-game losing streak into Fort Worth, there is still a glimmer of hope and a clear path to the NCAA Tournament for the Longhorns. There is an opportunity to get back on track and collect résumé-boosting victories, but it has to start now.

“The more we grow, the more we learn day by day and we need to put it all together,” redshirt sophomore guard Andrew Jones said. “It’s still a long season. We’ve still got enough time to flip the script, but we need to do it now. We’ve just got to do it now.”

With a record of 12–7 and likely needing to get to at least 20 wins to make the NCAA Tournament as a low seed, the Longhorns need to start taking care of business against teams in a similar position. Winnable games against TCU and Iowa State are on the docket, and before heading into a critical stretch in the season, Texas must win both games.

The three games following Iowa State are against No. 3 Kansas in Lawrence, a Texas Tech team at home that is receiving votes in the AP Poll and a home game against the No. 1 Baylor Bears. To be seriously considered for the NCAA Tournament, they will need to pick up at least one of those three games.

Past those games are three more winnable games against Iowa State, TCU and Kansas State. Pulling out two of those three would give Texas a record of 17–10 before heading into the final four games of the regular season.

Those final four games see West Virginia at home, Texas Tech and Oklahoma on the road, then Oklahoma State in Austin. Again, it won’t come down to beating the traditional powerhouses of the conference. 

Texas’ path is there. If Smart’s Longhorns can begin pulling out wins against closely matched opponents, Texas will have more than an outside shot of hearing its name called on Selection Sunday.