A season marked by December optimism, a top-10 ranking and Final Four dreams has dissolved into a campaign that could result with the Texas Longhorns being spectators during March Madness.
The Longhorns’ fate in regard to an NCAA Tournament berth probably comes down to how well No. 25 Texas (14-8, 3-6 Big 12) handles its next three games, starting with Saturday’s 3 p.m. matchup at Kansas State (12-11, 5-5). For the third time in four years, coach Rick Barnes’ team finds its season on the brink in February.
But this is the most talented of the three imperiled teams.
“I can’t explain that. I really can’t,” Barnes said after Wednesday’s 65-63 overtime loss to Oklahoma State. “I’ve got a group of guys that, if we can put it all together, we can be awfully good. But it can’t be a situation where one night the guards are playing and another night the post guys are playing. It’s got to be everybody.”
And it must happen soon if Texas wants to be part of the Big Dance for the 16th time in Barnes’ 17 seasons in Austin.
The Longhorns will arrive at the “Octagon of Doom” with a four-game losing streak and the knowledge that anything short of sweeping its next three opponents (K-State, TCU, Texas Tech) will make it tough to build the momentum needed to handle a closing stretch that includes five consecutive matchups against fellow Top 25 opponents.
Despite having the Big 12’s deepest returning roster (top six scorers from last year’s 24-11 team), plus heralded newcomer Myles Turner of Euless Trinity, Texas went 1-4 against that Fearsome Fivesome during the first half of the league’s round-robin schedule. And the Longhorns have done nothing in their recent slide to suggest the results will improve in Round 2 matchups against No. 21 Oklahoma (Feb. 17), No. 11 Iowa State (Feb. 21), No. 15 West Virginia (Feb. 24), No. 8 Kansas (Feb. 28) and No. 19 Baylor (March 2).
It’s a sobering situation to point guard Isaiah Taylor, who missed 10 games with a wrist injury during nonconference play but has taken part in every game against league opponents. That is the stretch where Texas has received recurring reality checks from hungrier Big 12 teams that avoid the self-inflicted wounds that sink the Longhorns.
Latest example: Oklahoma State posted an 18-4 edge in points off turnovers Wednesday, allowing the Cowboys (15-7, 5-5) to secure their first road victory against a league opponent. With the loss, Texas is 1-3 at home against Big 12 foes. In its last three games, Texas has fallen after facing first-half deficits of 13, 14 and 15 points.
“We had the fight in the second half. We have to have that fight the whole game,” Taylor said, reflecting on a comeback that fell short against OSU. “We have to come out with the mindset that we’re going to be aggressive. We can’t be hesitant.”
Yet that is how Barnes’ team has played with alarming frequency on the offensive end. Indecision, early deficits and excessive turnovers are traits of a team that has tuned out its coach. But Barnes and his players insist that is not the case.
Asked if his players remain “bought in” mentally, Barnes responded: “Oh, there’s no doubt. What it goes back to is … execution. All five guys have to play together and be fluid.”
That happened in November and December, when Texas raced to a 10-1 start and the No. 6 spot in The Associated Press poll. But it’s not happening now for a team that has absorbed double-digit setbacks in four of its six losses to league opponents.
Texas will take the floor at K-State in eighth place in the Big 12 standings, ahead of Tech (12-11, 2-8) and TCU (14-8, 1-8). The four-game slide is the Longhorns’ longest since the 2012-13 team lost five in a row to miss the NCAA Tournament and finish 16-18.
Demarcus Holland, a guard on both teams, remembers. But he says the similarities end there.
“This team is way different than that team,” Holland said. “We trust each other and we all believe in the system. We don’t have one selfish body on this team. I think everybody on this team can compete at a high level. We’re not panicking.”
For fans, it’s a different story. To recapture them and secure an NCAA berth from a difficult league, Texas must begin its turnaround ASAP. Although Barnes is puzzled by this slump, he’s seen plenty of midseason rallies in recent years and considers his team capable of following suit.
Baylor, a Sweet 16 team last season, was 2-8 at a comparable juncture in last year’s Big 12 campaign before going 10-1 in its next 11 matchups against league opponents to punch its NCAA ticket. Connecticut won the 2011 NCAA title after finishing 9-9 in conference play.
“You can be down at this point in time and fight back. You can be good at this time, think you’re there and lose it all,” Barnes said. “We’ve seen it happen. We can go on a run and do some good things. But it’s not about a run right now. It’s about bouncing back.”
One thing seems certain. If the first bounce does not occur within the next week, it will be too late for these Longhorns to save their season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
Texas at Kansas State
3 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Texas begins a stretch against the three teams trailing it in the Big 12:
Saturday @ K-State
Wed. vs. TCU
Feb. 14 vs. Texas Tech