Texas is a fractured team.
With five games remaining, the Longhorns will have you believe they can win three of their final regular-season games to make it to an 8-10 league finish that’s believed in some circles to be enough to qualify for the NCAAs.
The Longhorns have lost three straight games, including a sleepwalky affair against Kansas State, a no-show at TCU and a double-overtime gut punch Monday night courtesy of surging Baylor.
Is there anything worse than not being able to score for large chunks of a must-win game, only to claw your way back in, force an overtime, force another, then lose? Again.
“The bottom line is we came up short,” said coach Shaka Smart.
Twenty-six games in and there are many more questions than answers for Smart, who dropped to 46-46 overall and 20-29 in Big 12 play in his two-plus years in Austin. There’s a humpty-dumptyness about this team that engenders little hope of a late-season turnaround.
Smart, like his team, appears broken. Texas isn’t officially beyond repair but the smart money isn’t on a quick rebound, not after three straight losses at a time of the year when most tourney-bound teams are building momentum.
Texas (15-11, 5-8 Big 12) is a victim of its own failures, both past and present. The 74-73 double-overtime loss to Baylor moves the dial to critical mass and the Horns are starting to take on the look of a team incapable of redirecting the course of a season that bore so much promise after near-upset wins over Duke and Gonzaga and other disappointing finishes at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
Smart talked about the lack of effort at home against Kansas State and the Horns barely registered a pulse in Fort Worth. The effort against Baylor was much better, but the result was the same. When the NCAA selection committee starts handing out bids, they don’t look at quality losses as a good thing. There’s no such thing.
It feels like an NIT kind of season. If the Horns make it to the Big Dance, they will have to sneak in by putting together a run that just hasn’t happened since Big 12 play began. Shaka didn’t sound like a coach who has lost his team, but the season is eerily close to becoming an afterthought.
“Our guys always listen after the game and they look you in the eye,” Smart said last Saturday. “But they’re really, really upset and some of those really are really angry because it was a game where they really put their egos aside and really came together in terms of attacking and hanging in there together and battling. But obviously we came up one stop short or one basket short, depending on how you look at it. And the guys are really upset.”
So is the fan base, which has every right to question how Smart’s team could miss a second straight postseason despite having a pair of lottery picks on the roster.
As for the tournament, the glass-half-fulls will point out that all the Horns need to do is go 3-2 down the stretch to get in. The realists will point out that three of those games are road contests against Kansas, Oklahoma/Trae Young, and Kansas State — which just beat the Horns in Austin. The two home games are against Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
Baylor is proof enough that a team that was struggling early can catch fire and make things happen in this league, but the Horns just haven’t shown an ability to put consecutive winning performances together. Worse yet, they have mastered the art of finding a way to lose nail-biters, having dropped four conference games by three points or fewer.
“Obviously our team can get better, but this league is very unforgiving,” Smart said. “No one is going to feel sorry for you.”
While his team held a players-only meeting at the practice facility, a meeting that hopefully wasn’t the season’s first — one was sorely needed after the 86-51 loss to West Virginia — Smart is struggling to find the right answers as the season lurches toward freefall.
It’s not over, but it’s close.