Texas coach Rick Barnes is not used to looking up at the front-runners in the Big 12 race.
But that is today's perch for the Longhorns (13-7, 3-4 in Big 12) heading into a two-game stretch against Top 10 opponents that could turn this season -- as well as Texas' chances of extending its streak of 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances -- in any direction.
Barnes' team begins its pivotal Texas Two-Step in Waco, with today's noon showdown against No. 6 Baylor (18-2, 5-2) at the Ferrell Center. The stress test continues Monday, when No. 2 Missouri (18-2, 5-2) visits Austin.
A split or sweep boosts Texas' hopes of landing an at-large berth in the NCAA's Big Dance. Losing both drops a freshmen-laden team to 3-6 in the league standings, with the accompanying psychological scars.
For now, Barnes deems it premature to try to guess where his young team -- which is still improving -- might spend March Madness.
"At the end of the year, we'll look back and see if we became everything we could become," Barnes said. "In terms of growth, I think we're doing that. But it's about winning. If we become smarter, we will win our share of games."
Although less than ideal, Texas' chances of earning a 14th consecutive berth in the NCAA Tournament are a lot better than Texas A&M's hopes for extending its streak of six consecutive appearances.
The Aggies (11-8, 2-5), who began the season as a Top 25 team and a Big 12 co-favorite, have seen illness, injuries and attrition derail league title hopes for first-year coach Billy Kennedy.
When the Aggies meet Oklahoma State (10-10, 3-4) at 3 p.m. today in College Station, there is no guarantee the lineup will include A&M's established team leader (point guard Dash Harris) or top offensive player (forward Khris Middleton) because of injuries.
Harris injured his foot in Monday's 64-54 loss at No. 5 Kansas, and Middleton, the team's top scorer last season, missed the Kansas game after reinjuring a knee that received arthroscopic surgery in November.
Kennedy said he doesn't want Middleton involved in practices or games until the knee is "close to 100 percent" because rushing him back from surgery to play in games without taking part in full-speed practices hampered the team's flow in early Big 12 games.
"It didn't work," Kennedy said. "I don't think it's good for him or good for us."
What clearly would be good for A&M would be a long winning streak. Ditto for Texas. But neither team has shown the type of consistency that suggests one is imminent.
Both teams are 0-4 against Top 25 opponents. Both rank in the bottom half of Big 12 teams in assist-to-turnover ratio and field-goal percentage.
If the season ended today, both schools' RPI ratings (Texas is No. 67, A&M is No. 157) are outside the Top 50 neighborhood where NCAA Tournament committee members look to find at-large invitees.
But the Big 12 is strong enough, from top to bottom, that one upset can lead to a meteoric jump in RPI. Oklahoma State improved by 22 spots, to No. 101, with Wednesday's 79-72 victory over No. 2 Missouri.
That means A&M and Texas still have opportunities to extend their NCAA streaks with some late-season upsets. But only if each finishes 9-9 or better in league play, a logical baseline for at-large berths for Big 12 teams.
A&M, based on its body of work, probably won't hit that cutoff in a season that has been marked by injuries to Harris, Middleton and forward Kourtney Roberson (ankle).
Mix in the midseason departure of freshman point guard Jamal Branch, an Arlington Grace Prep product, and Kennedy's ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease and A&M's season seems destined to be remembered by turmoil, not triumphs.
"Gaining trust is the hardest thing for any first-year coach," Kennedy said. "Some teams buy in right away. With others, it's a process. For us it's been a process, with me missing some time. We're still getting everyone to buy in to practice habits and philosophy."
Texas, despite having six freshmen among its top nine players, seems to have gotten past the buy-in stage. The Longhorns knocked off Temple, the No. 16 team in the RPI ratings, in December and scored a 62-55 victory over Iowa State (14-6, 4-3) on Tuesday. But Barnes said improvement is needed in two areas.
"Finishing plays and understanding how hard it is to go from offense to defense," Barnes said. If that happens, Kansas State coach Frank Martin said the potential exists for a late-season Texas surge.
"Those freshmen, you've seen them all have moments," said Martin, whose team defeated Texas 84-80 on Jan. 18. "With freshmen, you can see their bright lights once in a while. Some times, they're not so bright. But the lights are always shining."
Barnes needs to have them shining brightly down the stretch, starting today in Waco, if he wants to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his 14 seasons in Austin.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760