Head coach Rick Barnes had never missed an NCAA tournament in 14 years at Texas until the Longhorns’ 16-18 campaign last season.
Now, a team led by only two upperclassmen and a wiry, hardworking bunch is in a position to start a new streak for Barnes. The team hasn’t made any excuses about its youth this season, and neither has the coach. When asked at the beginning of the year if Texas (13-4, 2-2 Big 12) could make the NCAA tournament, Barnes responded emphatically.
“No doubt, we have enough talent,” Barnes said. “We can compete every night we go out on the floor with anyone.”
Texas has done nothing to suggest its coach assessed incorrectly at the beginning of the season. There have been moments when youth flashed, but the team has grown quickly. The Longhorns made second-half comebacks in two of their first three games, and the team’s scrappy attitude has persisted throughout the season.
With 14 games remaining on the team’s schedule, the Longhorns will likely need seven wins to safely make the NCAA tournament, as anything less will land the team on the bubble.
The Big 12 is a potential minefield for the Longhorns. Texas still has eight matchups remaining with teams ranked in the Top 25, and the other programs in the conference aren’t guaranteed wins either. Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Oklahoma State have separated themselves from the rest of the conference early in the season, and Texas will have a tough time toppling any of these teams.
But if the Longhorns could surprise with an upset in one of their seven remaining games against these teams, it would be a huge boost to their tournament chances. A win over a top-15 team looks great to the NCAA tournament selection committee and would give Texas a little more leeway with the remainder of the schedule.
As it sits now, the Longhorns could not afford a loss to a team outside the Big 12 elite. But considering the parity of the conference — each team in the Big 12 is .500 or better overall — that will be challenging.
Texas must sweep the conference’s worst teams: Texas Tech, West Virginia and TCU. Those schools are the only Big 12 members to have more than five losses this season, and defeats in any of Texas’ four reaming games against these schools would be a tremendous blow.
More than likely, the Longhorns’ tournament hopes will come down to matchups with Oklahoma and Kansas State, two teams in similar positions as the Longhorns.
Each has the talent to make the NCAA tournament, but it’s hard to envision the Big 12 receiving seven bids. This will likely leave out one or even two of these schools.
Texas has the ability to make a tournament push, but finishing out the season 7-7 will be difficult. Conference play intensifies everything, and Texas’ young team must once again prove it can shine under pressure.