Texas looks to keep tournament hopes alive against West Virginia

Stephen Wagner

The Longhorns are running out of time to make their case for the NCAA Tournament.

Back-to-back wins over TCU and Kansas State have given Texas hope that there’s still time for a late win streak to catapult the Longhorns back into the tournament bubble. But is it too late for the Longhorns to save their season?

Texas is without a significant resume win and hasn’t beaten a currently ranked team. Compare that to tournament experts’ bubble teams, like Indiana University, UCLA and Providence College, all of which have top-25 wins, and Texas’ chances are bleak.

But there’s hope. Hope that Texas can win out, beat two potentially ranked opponents and make a deep enough run in the Big 12 Tournament that it can sneak into the big dance. It starts Monday night against No. 17 West Virginia.

Texas was utterly embarrassed in January’s 97-59 loss to the Mountaineers, the worst loss of the Shaka Smart era. Things have changed from their last matchup, although not necessarily for the best. Texas is now without three players who received significant minutes in Morgantown, West Virginia, including two starters. 

If Texas is going to pull off the upset and jump on a team that’s lost four of its last five games, it’ll have to crank up the pressure. 

“When you play West Virginia, the games where we’ve lost to them in the past, they’ve been the more aggressive team,” Texas’ head coach Shaka Smart said. “The games that we’ve won against them in the past, we have.” 

The same can be said for most of Texas’ games this year, particularly in its aggressiveness in the paint. But with junior forward Jericho Sims and sophomore forward Gerald Liddell (likely) done for time being, Smart is having to rely heavily on the inexperienced frontcourt of junior Royce Hamm Jr., freshman Kai Jones, sophomore Kamaka Hepa and freshman Will Baker. 

“We have to do it by committee with Jericho (Sims) out right now,” Smart said. “None of those guys can replace him one-for-one. It’s got to be different guys stepping forward.”

In its last two wins over TCU and Kansas State, Texas’ bigs have done just that.

Baker exploded for a career-high 20 points against TCU, and Hamm played well against Kansas State despite scoring only four points. 

“Those guys can do it,” Smart said. “They were recruited to play at this level, they have it in them, and now it’s a matter of going and doing it.”

Texas is running out of time to go and do it, and doesn’t have the luxury of losing a regular-season game. The Longhorns still have to travel to Lubbock, Texas on Saturday and Norman, Oklahoma next Tuesday, though Smart insists his team’s focus is constantly on the next opponent. 

But Texas’ dire situation can’t be ignored, and it is one the players are acutely aware of. 

Asked if he thinks about the NCAA Tournament, junior guard Matt Coleman said, “I think about it every day.”