the score

If the Horns Basketball Season Ended Today …

Impressive season-ending stretch needed

By Russ Espinoza, 1:06PM, Thu. Feb. 9, 2012

Freshman Sheldon McClellan
Freshman Sheldon McClellan
Photo courtesy of UT

Let’s put some more mileage on that overwrought sports hypothetical: If the season ended today …

… then the Longhorns would be on the jilted side of the velvet rope and its surly, burly handler: So said “seeding” sage Kevin Lyttle in the Austin American-Statesman, who cited UT’s “Bad RPI (66)” and their 2-8 record against college basketball’s Top 100.

At a minimum, he wrote, Texas (15-9, 5-6 Big 12) needs to reach .500 in Big 12 play to merit honest consideration for the Big Dance’s field of 64-65-66, whatever. “The Big 12 has five solid bids for the Tournament; Texas is trying to earn a sixth spot,” Lyttle wrote.

But UT’s primary impediment to inclusion remains a lack of that pesky “signature” win. The Big 12 teams Texas is contending with for the conference’s final spots, Iowa State (17-7, 7-4 Big 12) and Kansas State (17-6, 6-5 Big 12), have one apiece: the Wildcats over No. 4 Missouri in Manhattan, Kan., 75-59, on Jan. 7; and the Cyclones over No. 7 Kansas in Ames, 72-64, on Jan. 28.

Lyttle’s subsequent “if the tournament were held today” scenario lists Iowa State as a seven-seed and Kansas State as a 10 (meaning they’d conceivably play each other sometime, somewhere when the tournament unofficially begins on March 15). The Longhorns, on the other hand, would be stuck holding a sad little corsage along with fellow outcasts Arizona (remember them?), Arkansas, and Seton Hall.

That is, unless they can finally lasso that big win we’ve been hearing so much about. There was reasonable expectation that it would come somewhere between Jan. 21-30, when Texas took serious cracks at the Big 12’s three Top 10 giants; but the young Horns instead went 0 for their three opportunities, losing the trio by a combined nine points (two of those losses came at the Erwin Center).

The irony of bubble teams like Texas is that they have everything to gain from taking on elite competition (unlike a highly ranked team fighting for a higher seed): they’re not supposed to win, but oftentimes they can strut onto the dance floor if they do. It largely matters not if Texas runs the table against Oklahoma (whom they’ll face twice down the stretch), Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech, the Longhorns must capture a home win over No. 6 Baylor on Feb. 20, or a highly improbable victory at No. 7 Kansas on the regular season’s final day.

Think of one or the other as a letter of recommendation from a guy making far better money than you. You both know that, to date, he’s done much more in life, but he nonetheless thinks “you’ve got chops, kid.”

The Baylor game figures to be UT’s last stand; a near-literal do-or-die, end-of-the-line, face-off considering how Monday night’s win over the Aggies at College Station was their first road win since the first week of December.

Conversely, a win in their upcoming home game against Kansas State won’t woo the press or the tournament’s selection committee, but a loss would be crushing. For Texas, Saturday’s matchup is the ultimate trap game because KSU currently has a sensible claim to that final Big 12 Conference invitation: the Wildcats can afford to lose this one, the Longhorns can’t; making the game as vital to UT’s postseason chances as the Baylor home tilt that will follow nine days later.

Should Texas unimpressively stretch their current two-game winning streak to five by shooing KSU, OU, and OSU out of the way, the Longhorns will need to cook with the recipe they used to choke A&M on Monday night in College Station. Mainly, they’ll again need equal parts someone else, anyone else, to compliment the rich, iron-laden beefiness of J’Covan Brown.

Freshman guard Sheldon McClellan picked up his season’s-worth of slack in the Tech and A&M games — scoring 17 and 15, respectively. Though a freshman, the 6’4" kid was a Top 50 recruit who averaged 26 points per game out of high school. As a naturally gifted scorer he, in particular, will need to stand out in order to draw attention away from J’Covan Brown — because although a season’s worth of forced heavy lifting on offense is marvelous for No. 14’s draft stock, such a one-trick attack doesn’t evince the profile of a tournament-bound team.

Vs. Kansas State: Sat., Feb. 11, 1pm. Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River. $8-40. www.texassports.com.

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