When Is a Loss a Good Thing?

UT finally loses a Big 12 game

Longhorn J’Covan Brown
Longhorn J’Covan Brown (Photo courtesy of UT)

The package of upsets that rearranged the NCAA’s Top 5 last week summoned that timeless, annual question: “Is losing a game before the NCAA tourney a good thing?” Previously top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State was the first to field it after their 67-70 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 12. “We don’t like to lose,” Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger said.

He continued, “In the long run, it helps you out. You know what it feels like to lose, and you know that you don’t want to feel that feeling again.” The question had specific relevance to Ohio State because they were vying for an undefeated season, but Kansas and Texas – now No. 5 – both grappled with it in the aftermath of their recent losses in Big 12 play, to Kansas State and Nebraska, respectively.

The cliche addendum to it always points out that coaches and players hate to lose, particularly at this level and beyond. But was Texas’ unexpected 67-70 loss at Nebraska on Saturday afternoon a blessing in disguise like the question suggests?

There was an overpowering 11-game Longhorn winning streak (all Big 12 victories) prior to the Cornhusker blip. UT was razing Big 12 foes with a tried-and-true strategy that outlawed falling behind, period. Until Nebraska took a 40-38 lead at 16:29 in the second half, Texas (23-4, 11-1 Big 12) hadn’t trailed in a contest since Jan. 26 at Oklahoma State – a dominating seven-game tear that also displayed suffocating defense and accented their signature win at No. 3 Kansas on Jan. 22. Texas’ 11-0 start to Big 12 play threatened the school’s record mark of 13-0, set by the 1962-63 Longhorns, formerly of the Southwest Conference.

In some respects, being a top-tier team is a thankless job. The raised expectations UT has gradually assigned themselves this year means that fans generally don’t flinch over wins against Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. Hopefully, Longhorn nation can resist accentuating the negative, bearing in mind that both No. 2 Ohio State (25-2) and No. 3 Kansas (25-2) joined Texas in last week’s losers bracket.

College basketball has a tumultuous and capricious quality that college football generally lacks because it yields far more upsets — like unranked Kansas State’s resounding 84-68 victory over Kansas on Valentine’s Day. The heightened parody in the game is, in large part, what makes March Madness so riveting: we all love the upsets, and people’s brackets end up in shambles as a result. The catch-22 of being highly ranked in the regular season is that three-and-a-half months of stellar play can be quickly, and sickeningly, vanquished in the tournament’s sudden-death format by an obscure dark horse. For this reason, I think it can be cleansing for teams like Texas, Kansas, and Ohio State to taste defeat, if only because it painfully reinforces that they can’t ever assume victory and let their guard down.

But what was the character of UT’s feelings after J’Covan Brown’s last-ditch 3-pointer fell short, triggering a wash of ebullient Husker fans onto the court? Based on the tenor of the post-game comments, it was neither despair, nor relief — but a steely acceptance. “They totally dominated the second half of the game. They got whatever they wanted inside,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “When you get beat 38-14 in the lane, you will probably lose some games there. We didn’t have a great day shooting the ball …. We just weren’t very good, and they spread the court out and took advantage of that.”

In the big picture, Nebraska’s win was a fluke, a freak accident. But not on the court that day: not only did the Cornhuskers drastically outscore Texas in the paint, as Barnes icily spelled out, but they also out-muscled UT on the glass, with a 39-34 rebounding advantage. And despite the grit and tenacity Texas displayed in the game’s final minutes to make it interesting, Nebraska markedly out-played them and deserved to win — having shot 56% from the floor in the second half.

“Man, what a great game,” Nebraska coach Doc Stadler said. “How can you not be excited? It’s a great day for us.”

Unfortunately, the Nebraska loss has saddled Texas with a logistical complication for the time being: the Longhorns will be denied a No. 1 seed in the tournament if the Top 5 holds steady, but the schedule(s) break in their favor. Their remaining regular season games against Iowa State, at Colorado, back home versus Kansas State, and at Baylor (all unranked) should signify a smooth path to the finish line, while the teams above them — Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, and Pittsburgh — await matchups with stiff conference rivals: Duke at No. 19 North Carolina on March 5; Ohio State vs. No. 12 Wisconsin on March 6; Kansas vs. No. 21 Texas A&M on March 3 and at No. 20 Missouri on March 5; Pittsburgh at No. 16 Louisville on February 27 and vs. No. 15 Villanova on March 5.

Texas is simultaneously on the outside looking in and sitting pretty. The tournament looms and Longhorn fans ought to have great expectations. Let’s get weird, Austin.

Next home games: Vs. Iowa State: Tue., Feb. 22, 7pm. Vs. Kansas State: Mon., Feb. 28, 8pm. Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River. $8-40. www.texassports.com.

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