Last Monday, the Longhorns were 9-3 and one game behind Kansas in the Big 12 title race. But, after consecutive road losses to Iowa State and Kansas — two teams Texas defeated in Austin earlier this season — Texas now trails the Jayhawks by three games with only four games remaining. While they have exceeded expectations, these Longhorns are not yet at the level of Rick Barnes’ prolific teams of years past.
From 2002-2008, Texas made it to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight three times. Although each of those teams had different playing styles, they all possessed two characteristics: veteran leadership and big-time talent, traits the current Longhorns lack.
Texas’ main troubles lie on the offensive end, where freshman guard Isaiah Taylor is the only player averaging more than three assists per game. The Longhorns sit at 217th and 239th nationally in assists and field goal percentage, respectively — a clear indicator that they don’t have an elite offensive playmaker. This fact was painstakingly clear in Saturday’s 85-54 shellacking in Kansas, which dropped Texas to 20-7.
Texas’ lack of offensive power starkly contrasts that of the 2002 team, which, fueled by T.J. Ford’s 15 points and 7.7 assists per game and James Thomas’ nightly double-doubles, was 22-5. With Ford at its helm, the team reached the Final Four before falling to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse, the eventual champions.
This trend continues with the ‘05-‘06 Longhorns, which stood at 23-4 overall and 11-2 in conference play after 27 games. P.J. Tucker and LaMarcus Aldridge were unstoppable that year, each averaging more than 15 points and nine rebounds per game while anchoring a stifling defense that allowed only 60 points per game — a far cry from the defensive stats of the current Longhorns, who yield 71 per outing. Powered by this dynamic duo, they fell to Glen “Big Baby” Davis and LSU in the Elite Eight.
Texas’ most recent deep run in the NCAA tournament was in 2008, when D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams each averaged more than 16 points per game. Fueled by superb outside shooting, they sat at 23-4 with a 10-2 mark in the Big 12 before eventually losing to Derrick Rose and the Memphis Tigers in the Elite Eight.
To put it simply, this year’s Longhorns lack the explosiveness, experience and star power that propelled past Texas teams to postseason success. That being said, this is the same group everyone wrote off before the season even began. They have already made huge strides and will continue to grow. If they can build on this foundation, these players will have a chance to join the likes of Ford, Aldridge and Augustin in the Texas record books.