Thanks to a surprising 11-2 start, the Texas Longhorns now find themselves in the discussion for a NCAA tournament bid for the first time this season. As of this week, Joe Lunardi has Texas as a 10-seed, which is a far cry from the projections at the beginning of the year from most pundits(though to be fair, the pessimism was understandable). The conference schedule starts this week and will ultimately determine whether Texas makes the Big Dance or heads to the NIT, so it seems like a good time to look ahead & guess how this Texas team might get t experience March Madness for the first time in 24 months.
The Likely Wins
TCU plainly isn't very good. It's not for a lack of effort - I think they're improving - but they were so bad that being 'an improvement' doesn't mean 'good'. It's more like a dumpster that used to be on fire, but the fire's out & somebody's hosed out the charred trash. Texas really shouldn't lose either of these games if they have any NCAA aspirations.
Tubby Smith has the team headed in the right direction, but they're still a year or two away from being truly competitive in a conference as good as the Big 12. Texas should win both of these games, though it's not a gimme in Lubbock.
If WVU can keep up with what they've done so far this season, WVU could slide into the next category..I'm just not convinced they will. Their offense has gone from atrocious to passable & Bob Huggins has them playing the kind of defense his teams are usually known for. Like most of the conference, this team is better than they were last year. The game in Morgantown could be tough; what it boils down to for me is that nearly everything WVU is good at, Texas is better at.
The 'Toss Ups'
I'm using the term 'toss ups' loosely here. It's not that I think these teams are a coin flip, it's more that the difference in overall quality between Texas & these teams is not so great that one team would be a significant favorite over the other on a neutral court.
I'm hedging on this team; if the team from the beginning of the season shows up then Texas would win easily, but as of late they've been playing significantly better. I'm not a big Bruce Weber fan & I think he's a downgrade from Frank Martin, so perhaps that's coloring my opinion of KSU. As Jeff Haley mentions in his preview, the KSU shooting percentages seem uncharacteristically good & like they're due to revert to the mean. This team is still a bit of an enigma to me so I may be putting them in this category more out of caution than anything.
OU has surprised me with their play this season, and I think they provide as many match-up problems for Texas as Texas does for them. Also, it's entirely possible that Texas & OU will end up as 2 teams fighting for 1 spot in the NCAAs, so both teams should be very motivated to beat each other. These may be 2 of the best games in the Big 12 this year.
Baylor is *this* close to being in the next category, and if they were coached by anybody other than Scott Drew they'd definitely be in the next category. As usual, talent is not their problem, more so consistent motivation and coaching. The rebounding battles in these games should be epic.
The Likely Losses
While I don't think the overall talent gap between Iowa State & Texas is substantial, I think Iowa State's strengths & offensive game plan are a bad match for Texas. Texas' general inability to defend the 3-point line is lethal against the Fightin' Hoibergs, so unless ISU goes uncharacteristically cold from beyond the arc then Texas' chances are not good.
The Cowboys are flat-out good & I don't think losing their starting center is enough of a blow to give Texas a great shot at beating this team. This is arguably the best team Texas will face all year.
It's Kansas, and Texas isn't playing them in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. J'Covan Brown isn't walking through that door, either.
So, how does Texas get to dance in March?
Realistically, Texas needs at least a 9-9 record in the conference to be firmly in the tournament. It gives them a .500 record in conference and 20 wins overall, which should be enough most years. It's possible 8-10 and a deep run in the conference tournament would do it, but for the sake of this experiment let's go with 9-9. Here's the conference schedule for Texas:
@ Oklahoma St.
@ West Virginia
@ Kansas St.
@ Iowa St.
@ Texas Tech
@ Texas Tech
@ Oklahoma State
@ Iowa State
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
@ Kansas State
That's 6-7 with 5 games left to decide the final destination for Texas. These 5 games are the difference between the NCAA & the NIT. If Texas takes care of business against the lower 1/3 of the conference & can win 3 out of these 5 game, they have a great case for dancing in March. I'm cautiously optimistic about their chances of pulling this off, much more than I was 3 months ago. The homer in me wants to predict a final record of 22-9(11-7 in conference), but I'm not quite ready to go full retard just yet. I'm happy that we're 13 games into the season and talking about Texas making the NCAAs at all, considering how last year went.