If you have a copy of the first half of Texas's 69-49 win at A&M on January 31, burn that sucker. Save it. Savor it. Review it frequently during the long, hot summer. It's likely the best half of basketball Texas will play this season. They peaked that night.
Yeah, I said it.
That's the bad news. However, that game was played about a month ago, and there's still time for the Horns to peak again, just in time for the NCAA tournament. Not saying it will happen... just that it can.
Until we know the answer to that question – and Final Four tickets went out this week for those you with an interest – the question for today, in the wake of the first Big 12 loss of the season, is what are the chances of the Longhorns claiming a No. 1 seed (and, most important, the route to the Final Four through Tulsa and San Antonio)?
Reading the tea leaves of the most recent polls, as well as the likely outcomes of the season for the various contenders, it appears that the loss to Nebraska has turned the chances from pretty darn good on both counts to not so hot in terms of the seed and even colder in terms of the path.
Before Nebraska, Texas probably was the hottest commodity in college hoop world. Between about 1:15 CT Saturday (after Pitt lost to St. John's) and 2 p.m. (just before the second half started in Lincoln), Texas looked like it was going to ascend to the No. 1 spot in the coaches' poll, in which it was ranked second, behind Kansas. (Texas actually was tied with Ohio State for the top spot in the ESPN power rankings that had come out on Thursday.)
That's not to say they were playing the best or most consistently. In the remarkable streak of not trailing for more than the equivalent of seven games, after the victory at Oklahoma State, the Horns performed the equivalent of seven straight bouts in which they dominated with a couple of early knockdowns, then resorted to clinching for the remainder of the fight. They had tried to do the same thing at Nebraska, building a seven-point halftime lead, but it wasn't enough for various reasons, the major two being poor outside shooting and abysmal defense.
The effect of the Nebraska loss was telling, even though all four of the top teams in the polls lost after the latest polls were released on Valentine's Day. When the new polls came out, Texas fell to fifth in both – behind the former leaders and new No. 1 Duke in the AP poll and behind No. 4 San Diego State in the coaches poll, with Pitt sixth. Texas dropped to sixth in Jeff Sagarin's rankings, and was fourth on Ken Pomeroy's list, behind Ohio State, Duke and Kansas. In the RPI, the NCAA's favorite measuring stick, Texas was eighth.
All this means that Texas has a tough road back to the top. Instead of the having a top seed in most of the bracket cogitation that is occurring, the Horns are now on the 2 line. In order to make it back, there is only one path that is a virtual guarantee: Sweep the remaining three regular-season games to win the Big 12 outright, and win the conference tournament the following week. That most likely would give Texas the chance to play in Tulsa, then San Antonio.
If the Horns can do only one of these, Kansas will have a strong case to be seeded above Texas, even though it lost to UT in Lawrence in January. It will have a better record (with as many as three fewer losses) and the more recent victory. This may happen even though the tournament selection committee long has shown respect for conference champions over the results of conference tournaments. (KU most likely has the edge in the tournament, due to its more versatile and deeper bench, especially in a third game in three days for both teams. Basically, the Jayhawks can bring scorers of the bench, and Texas doesn't.)
It should be noted that we're not even digging into the three remaining games. The Horns play Colorado tomorrow at altitude with minimum front-court depth due to the Alexis Wangmene suspension. Considering that the Buffs have lost only twice at home (to KU by four and to A&M in overtime), it's certainly possible that Texas won't be leading the B12 by itself at sundown.
If Texas does lose at least one more game, to get a No. 1, the Longhorns probably must be chosen ahead of two of three of Ohio State, Duke and the Mountain West tournament champ (especially if San Diego State can beat BYU tomorrow at home, and win the tournament, to finish 33-1). If North Carolina cannot beat Duke in Chapel Hill on March 5, I don't expect the Blue Devils to lose again before the NCAA.
If Texas can't move up, it's doubtful that the committee would provide a "home-court" advantage to a 2 seed over a 1, like Texas would be expected to have in the Alamodome. The committee has done something similar before, though, when it bracketed third-seed A&M to play second-seed Memphis in the Sweet 16 in San Antonio in 2007. However, doing that likely would move Kansas out of SA, the closest regional site to its campus. Even ESPN's Joe Lunardi, who had Texas in San Antonio as a No. 1 after the loss to Nebraska, moved the Horns to the Anaheim region in his most recent bracket iteration.
Given that going unbeaten in the Big 12 was going to be a tall order, getting San Antonio was going to be difficult because of the sheer number of decent candidates for a top seed. It's still out there, but road is going to be longer, and probably more difficult.
In the meantime, think small, and hope for a 40-minute effort.