Are the Horns Tourney Bound?

Steep hill to climb

J'Covan Brown
J'Covan Brown (Photo courtesy of UT)

Where were you the last time Texas failed to make the Big Dance? Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office – with Monica: last century.

The 2011 Longhorns recently had opportunity, after opportunity, after opportunity to snare a standout win to dress-up their tournament credentials: their last (and most viable) shot having slipped away in a 69-66 loss to No. 5 Kansas at the Erwin Center on Saturday afternoon.

Texas’ current three-game losing streak – at the adroit hands of No. 2 Missouri, No. 22 Kansas State, and Kansas – does not bode well for a 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The deflating prospect of Texas relegating themselves to the NIT is all too real – and lame. There are historical anomalies: like a Longhorn Final Four team. And then there are firsts: like Texas missing the tournament under Rick Barnes.

A man named Tom Penders coached the 1998 Longhorns to a 14-17 record the year UT last missed the cut. We were all much younger people then — indeed: so young as to be living under the wings of Mom and Dad, drinking Capri Sun, and busing it to school every morning. “Young” has been this season’s buzzword, functioning as both a beacon of hope for the future and a present-day scapegoat — a tribe (in zoological parlance) of six freshmen who haven’t learned to walk under their own power yet.

UT’s fair, yet hollow, 12-7 record (2-4 Big 12) conveys how Barnes and his staff have faced the challenge of their coaching lives this season. It’s old news worth repeating that not a single starter from last season’s 28-8 team remains; each position on the floor for Texas, save J’Covan Brown at shooting guard, has proven a marked downgrade; as of yet, no one apart from Brown seems willing — and more importantly — able to produce consistent scoring; pile on the supervisory chore of tempering freshman guard Myck Kabongo’s attitude, and coach Barnes must be privately losing his Skittles.

Strangely, as the one player giving his coach any solace this season, Brown ostensibly cost UT the game against Kansas on Saturday by not distributing enough on a poor shooting day. The junior guard once again led the Longhorns in scoring — netting 24 points – but only went 7 for 26 from the field. But considering the relative offensive handicap of his cohorts, Brown’s only crime was missing those 19 shots, not his decision to take them at the expense of his teammates. Brown’s 19.5 points per game dwarfs the 11.8 per game from the team’s No. 2 scorer, freshman guard Sheldon McClellan. The gaping absence of a bona-fide big man to occupy the paint is what primarily limits the Texas offense and forces Brown to make it rain — even amid double-teams. But the Longhorn coaching staff places the onus squarely on themselves to solve the problem of their one-dimensional, one-man offense:

“Offensively, we just haven’t been very good,” assistant coach Chris Ogden told the Austin American-Statesman. “It cost us some games. It’s not on the players.

"It’s on us [coaches]. We have to figure out what works best. When you are young, it takes longer.”

The Longhorns don’t have much more time this season to work out the bugs in their performance and game planning. The polarity of their 11-1 home record against their 1-6 mark beyond ATX presages Saturday’s narrow home loss to Kansas was an unofficial back-breaker. That is, unless they can will and thrill their way over No. 2 Missouri at the Erwin Center on Jan. 30. Beyond that, Texas can do little else barring a home win over No. 6 Baylor on Feb. 20 and/or an improbable road victory over No. 5 Kansas on March 3 to blow the selection committee’s wispy, gray hair back.

Jan. 24: Iowa State
Jan. 28: @ No. 3 Baylor
Jan. 30: No. 5 Missouri
Feb. 4: Texas Tech

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J'Covan Brown, Rick Barnes, Tom Penders

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