Any illusions about Texas’ midseason turnaround were exposed Saturday as a momentary mirage.
Now, it’s back on the bubble and back on the clock for the Longhorns’ hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Also possibly on the clock: the countdown toward a postseason coaching search if coach Rick Barnes’ team, ranked No. 6 nationally on Dec. 5, misses the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons with all of its assembled talent.
None of that talent translated to a victory Saturday as Texas fell to No. 14 Iowa State 85-77 at the Erwin Center. The Longhorns’ two most experienced inside players, senior forward Jonathan Holmes and junior center Cameron Ridley, combined to make 2 of 7 shots and did not make it to the free-throw line against the smaller Cyclones in a game Texas (17-10, 6-8 Big 12) desperately needed to enhance its postseason hopes.
Gone, at this point, is the momentum of a recent three-game winning streak. In its place, Texas finds itself in a two-game slide and facing a virtual must-win predicament heading into back-to-back road games at No. 23 West Virginia on Tuesday and at No. 8 Kansas on Saturday.
The Longhorns will hit the road with a 1-9 record against opponents ranked among the Top 50 of the RPI, a key consideration for members of the NCAA selection committee when they assign at-large berths in March.
Barnes and his players understand the challenge, although Barnes is not ready to fold the tents with four regular-season games remaining. It is worth noting, however, that only one Big 12 team in league history (Oklahoma State, 2014) has earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a losing record in league play.
“If we … lost the next four, I think we’d be in serious risk after that,” Barnes said about his team’s NCAA chances. “I’ll promise you, right now, there’s 100 teams on the bubble. If you’re going to get there, you’ve got to win. If we’re good enough, we will. If we’re not, we won’t.”
Texas fell Saturday to an Iowa State team that won in Austin for the first time under fifth-year coach Fred Hoiberg. The Cyclones (20-6, 10-4 Big 12) also secured consecutive road victories against Big 12 opponents for the first time since 2006.
For the Longhorns, matters began unraveling Saturday when Iowa State closed the first half on an 8-0 run over the final three minutes despite having its best player, Georges Niang (17 points, five rebounds), on the bench because of foul trouble. The surge erased Texas’ 31-27 lead. ISU boosted the advantage to double digits with an 11-3 run midway through the second half on Naz Long’s layup and three consecutive 3-pointers: one by Long (12 points) and two by Matt Thomas (17 points).
Holmes, who has struggled since returning from a concussion Feb. 4 against Oklahoma State, made only 1 of 5 shots while scoring two points, nine below his season average (11.0). Holmes did not make it to the foul line for the fourth time in his past five games.
“I’m not being as aggressive as I need to be,” Holmes said. “I’ve just got to get better, improve and get back in rhythm.”
Barnes said he needs more from Holmes, the lone senior in Texas’ playing rotation, and other veterans if the Longhorns are going to turn things around.
“Right now, we need some leadership and it goes back to our older guys,” Barnes said. “Your older guys this time of year have to play. I really hate it for Jon. I know he’s hurting. I told him, ‘You’re a senior, man. You’ve worked too hard not to believe in yourself right now.’”
Texas fell Saturday despite a career-high 29 points from guard Kendal Yancy, who more than doubled his previous high (14 points). The Longhorns lost despite playing turnover-free basketball in the second half and winning the rebounding battle 43-32.
But the Cyclones were more than a match for Yancy from 3-point range, making 12 of 21 (57.1 percent). Texas, once again, is left in scramble mode after falling to 11-5 at home, the Longhorns’ worst mark in Austin since the 2001-02 season.
“It’s no time to be feeling sorry for ourselves,” Yancy said. “We’ve just got to get out of this losing streak.”
If not, Barnes could be hearing from more than the disgruntled fans who booed the team off the floor at halftime. From Hoiberg’s perspective, Texas remains a team capable of turning things around, despite being swept this season by ISU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in Big 12 play.
“They’re a team that’s very dangerous,” Hoiberg said of the Longhorns. “If they make it into the tournament, which I think they will, they’re a team you don’t want to face in the first two rounds.”
If Texas falls short of an NCAA berth, the Longhorns become a team with questions to answer in the off-season. The biggest one could involve the continued employment of the head basketball coach.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760