Longhorn Fans Expect the Unexpected
Horns remain unpredictable
By Russ Espinoza,
2:49PM, Mon. Mar. 7, 2011
Bookended by Fun Fun Fun and South by Southwest, Texas’ redeemed 2010-11 regular season ended with an emphatic 60-54 sigh of relief against the bubbly Baylor Bears on Saturday night in Waco.
For Baylor (18-12, 7-9 Big 12), a win over the beleaguered No. 7 Longhorns was practically imperative for entry into the NCAA tourney. Texas — on the other hand — was desperate to arrest their troubling late-season swoon and rehabilitate their psyche. They did — and they have the deft, regal hands of Alexis Wangmene to thank.
But clearly the expectant tone that predated the Colorado cough-up and the Kansas State revival on Senior Night at the Erwin Center has been substantially drained of enthusiasm. As Cedric Golden of The Austin American-Statesman wrote following the Wildcats’ 75-70 victory on February 28: “At least we can quit talking about a No. 1 seed now.”
Until February 19, the Longhorns (25-6, 13-3 Big 12) had enjoyed such a magical season that the day’s 67-70 loss at unranked Nebraska essentially felt like divine intervention. But the debacle in Boulder the following Saturday — in which UT infamously spoiled a 22-point lead — roused the herd of cyberspace cynics and their anti-Barnes catcalls.
Those taunts grew louder and more belligerent when Kansas State made it irrefutable that Texas had another February crisis on its hands. “At this point, fans are smart enough to stop worrying about where the Longhorns will be playing in the NCAAs. The real concern is how their team is playing,” Golden continued.
This season of heightened parody in the men’s game has produced a unique amount of turnover and reshuffling of the Top 10. By predictably not accounting for the unpredictable, a great many Longhorn fans and observers – myself included – assumed a breezy finish to the regular season: with the team pitted against unranked Big 12 opponents in each of their final nine contests. But whether the fault of “a patented Barnes meltdown” — as some like to crow – or isolated letdowns coincidentally jumbled together at precisely the wrong time, the Longhorns could’ve skated to that No. 1 seed had they stopped the bleeding a game earlier and finished 7-2 instead of 6-3.
A rash of late-February, early-March disorder within the Top 10 has seen No. 6. San Diego State lose vs. No. 3 BYU, No. 4 Pittsburgh lose at No. 11 Louisville, No. 3 BYU lose vs. New Mexico, No. 6 Purdue lose at Iowa, and No. 1 Duke lose at No. 13 North Carolina. Despite Texas’ redemptive win at Baylor on Saturday night, their 25-6 regular season record is further dimmed by another wasted opportunity: The No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks secured their seventh straight Big 12 regular season title on Saturday afternoon by dashing No. 24 Missouri’s bid for an unbeaten home season, 70-66.
“I’m really proud of our guys because three weeks ago we had no chance,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “Certainly what these guys have done is pretty remarkable.”
“You don’t get banners hung for that in Allen Fieldhouse, but it’s a pretty cool deal and certainly, hopefully will springboard us into a good postseason,” he added.
Kansas’ ascent from “no chance” to Big 12 title had less to do with Jayhawk stars Marcus and Markieff Morris, and was based more on Longhorn MVP Jordan Hamilton’s recent five-game cold spell: a 30.6 shooting percentage (26 of 85) that significantly helps explain the team's flirtation with catastrophe — Hamilton was 5 of 18 against Kansas State. The sophomore forward’s defense has been a liability as a result, highlighting a codependent relationship between the halves of Hamilton’s game that head coach Rick Barnes had seen from his star before: “Sometimes when (Hamilton) is not playing well offensively, he gets really impatient on both ends, where he is trying to make a great play as opposed to just staying solid,” Barnes said.
However, it was uncharacteristic teamwide defectiveness on defense that allowed Colorado and Kansas State to shoot in the high 50s from the field during each game's second half. The Buffaloes duplicated the Cornhusker attack from a week earlier by spreading the court and making aggressive moves to the basket, disorienting the Longhorns and creating many open three-pointers for themselves.
Two days later, a nearly 5 minute Texas scoring drought in the second half enabled Kansas State to overtake the lead and protect it for good.
“Some of the breakdowns are baffling to be honest with you,” Rick Barnes said following the game. “I can’t tell you why because we’ve proven we can be really good defensively and offensively.”
The timing and totality of UT’s many fatal “breakdowns” of late make a loud argument that this last win at Baylor was their most important of the season. If we all suspend disbelief and resume entertaining the idea that this is still a championship team, recent history works in our favor. Four of the last 5 national champions endured disquieting late-season fiascos similar to what’s happened with the 2011 Longhorns: the 2009 North Carolina Tarheels lost two of six entering the NCAA tournament; the 2008 Kansas Jayhawks lost two of their final seven — including two of three. The 2007 Florida Gators lost three of their final five regular season games, including three of four; and the 2006 Florida Gators lost three of their final five regular season games, including three in a row.
Only the 2009 Tarheels appeared down-and-out entering the NCAA tournament, as they went on to lose in the second round of the ACC Tournament to Florida State. The rest atoned by winning their respective conference tournaments en route to a national championship. The Longhorns’ outcome in the upcoming Big 12 tournament in Kansas City will likely speak volumes about their Final Four/national championship prospects. For all the negativity and upheaval that’s swirled around the Longhorns of late, history reminds us to expect the unexpected.