Men's Basketball

The Starting 5: Texas is in and is the Big 12 Tournament important?

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Posted March 5th, 2018

Every Monday during the basketball season we give you five things Texas men’s basketball fans need to know about the week to come.

Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski (21) cheers on the crowd after scoring a three pointer late in the second half Texas’ win against West Virginia 87-79 Saturday. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

5. Texas beats West Virginia, probably locks up a tournament spot

Texas lost to Kansas to start the week. The Longhorns played the league champs tough, but at the end of the day, it was senior night, Kansas needed a win to claim the league outright and Kansas won by 10 points despite a good game by Texas.

So then Texas needed to win at home against West Virginia to keep the tournament dream alive. Texas won 87-79, outscoring the Mountaineers 15-7 in overtime.

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I wrote last week that a loss wouldn’t have crippled Texas’ tournament chances, not with the Big 12 Tournament looming, but this does ease the pressure of having to win at least two games in Kansas City, something Texas likely would have had to do to make the tournament if it had lost.

Since losing Eric Davis and a healthy Mo Bamba, Shaka Smart’s best coaching qualities — his ability to connect with players and motivate them — have been kicked into high-gear. Texas has played with a greater sense of urgency and competitiveness that just hasn’t been there all season. If Texas plays like that the rest of the way, UT will be a scary foe in the NCAA Tournament, especially if it gets a 7-foot shot blocking machine healthy.

Texas guard Jacob Young (3) celebrates a three-pointer he made during a game against Oklahoma State in February. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

4. NCAA Tournament outlook

ESPN: Joe Lunardi has Texas as a play-in game against USC (the Kevin Durant Revenge Game! Also: The Vince Young Revenge Game if you’re a USC fan) with the winner playing Kentucky (I’m all in on that game).

CBS: Jerry Palm has Texas as a play in-game facing Syracuse (the battle for the best shade of orange!) with the winner playing Houston (could be Texas vs. Houston in Dallas nonetheless!)

Sports Illustrated: SI hasn’t updated their bracket watch since March 1, but they have Texas as play-in game also and they to have them playing USC. The difference is the winner would play Florida (so many intriguing football matchups here).

American-Statesman’s Kevin Lyttle: Kevin has the Longhorns as an 11-seed in the East, meaning they would be in a play-in game against one of his last four in, which includes USC, Baylor (which wouldn’t be an option for Texas), Providence and Louisville. If the Longhorns win, they would face … oh, Kevin … Texas A&M in the first round of the tournament.

Texas forward Jericho Sims (20) dunks the ball during a game against Kansas State in February. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

3. A look at the future, will Texas have some mojo next season?

While a lot of people have been excited about Mo Bamba this season, what ought to make Texas fans way more giddy are the players who are going to be here in the long-term future. No offense to Bamba, but he’s about to make millions next season, while Texas will return an experienced, talented group that could be one of the three best teams in the Big 12 next season.

Taking out the unknowns — Eric Davis’ and Andrew Jones’ status for next season — Texas returns its most talented and best group of the Smart era.

While he may make some frustrating plays at times, Kerwin Roach has become the life-blood of this Texas team and, unless he makes an unforeseen decision to head to the NBA, Roach will return next year as a four-year player, three-year starter and one of the best guards in the Big 12. Roach has been the best player for Texas the last two weeks and has risen his play with Davis and Bamba out.

Throw in Dylan Osetkowski and Texas will for sure have two seniors leading the team.

But you can’t watch Texas these days without admitting that Jericho Sims is the future of the program. He looked like a future NBA first-round pick on Saturday against West Virginia and if he returns, and Texas tweaks the offense to run through him more, he looks capable of doing just that in 2019. No player should excite Texas fans more than Sims.

Now add a second year of Matt Coleman at point guard, and what could be a deep bench if James Banks, Jacob Young, Royce Hamm and Jase Febres all return (transfers do happen) and Texas will have an actual true-point guard to back-up Coleman in in-coming transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long, and Texas has a team that’ll be as good as any in the Big 12 next season.

All that and we didn’t even mention a likely top 15 recruiting class.

For those who have thrown up their hands and complained about Smart the last two years, if Texas is struggling to make the tournament next season, then you can get louder. But the “fire Shaka” hot take this year will look silly if Texas is rolling in 2018-19.

Head coach Shaka Smart of the Texas Longhorns reacts from the bench alongside players during the quarterfinal game of the 2017 Big 12 Basketball Tournament against the West Virginia. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

2. Does the Big 12 Tournament really matter?

If you believe eight teams are “locks to make the NCAA Tournament” already and there are only 10 teams in the league, then really this tournament matters for only two teams, right?

Iowa State is a sub .500 team that likely probably would be a bubble team if they were in other leagues, but that’s a mystical argument I’m not getting into. They need to win the tournament to get in and they could do it — I guess.

Oklahoma State is really the team that this tournament matters most. The Cowboys aren’t on anybody’s list to make the tournament but their win-loss records are similar to three other Big 12 teams many believe are in the tournament. They have the same amount of wins as four likely tournament teams in the league. They played a terrible non-conference schedule and went 1-1 in their two toughest games (loss to Wichita State, win at Florida State). I don’t think Oklahoma State has to win the tournament to get in. But if it beats Oklahoma and Kansas this week and reaches Friday, it’ll move up on a hypothetical “last four out/in” lists.

If we want to talk seeds and placement, the tournament does have some importance. Kansas will be a No. 1 seed if they win the tournament. It would be hard not to pick Kansas if the options are two Big East teams and two ACC teams and the regular season and tournament champions of the Big 12.

Texas Tech will lock up a No. 2 seed if they win it. I don’t see a way the Red Raiders can get a No. 1 seed when their best opponents of the non-conference schedule were Seton Hall and Nevada — and they lost to one of those teams.

West Virginia has a better case for the No. 1 seed over Texas Tech if they win the tournament because they have one of two best non-conference wins in college basketball, a win over likely No. 1 overall seed Virginia. But the Mountaineers aren’t getting a No. 1 seed with a third-place regular season finish.

So let’s talk Texas: The Longhorns, along with Baylor, are probably the two programs that can do the most moving among the eight teams we think are making the tournament. Texas is widely picked as a play-in team. No one wants to be a play-in team. The Iowa State game is more harmful than helpful. Texas has to win that game to just to stay steady.

A loss means they’ll have to hope no upsets happen in the Pac-12, AAC, Big East and Conference USA tournaments to get in. But after that, Texas would have an opportunity to play a squad they match up incredibly well with and have beaten, Texas Tech. Win over Tech and I think Texas is off the 11 line. A loss doesn’t hurt them either.

So to answer the original question, the Big 12 Tournament does matter, but for the bubble teams it likely does more harm than good if they lose Wednesday or Thursday. For the top five teams, it maybe takes them from a 4 to a 3 or a 3 to a 2 (or vice versa) with likely Kansas the only team that could get the one seed. But really, you’re just picking nits at this point.

I imagine that 50 percent of the league isn’t exactly thrilled about playing a conference tournament.

Mo Bamba (4) celebrates a slam dunk in the Longhorns’ game against Iowa State in January. (Ricardo Brazziell/American-Statesman)

1. Texas plays Iowa State at 8 p.m. on Wednesday

The Iowa State elevator pitch: The Cyclones are in full “Major League” mode where they have to win the whole bleeping thing to make the NCAA Tournament.

No. 7 seed Texas drew the No. 10 seed in the Big 12 Tournament and the Cyclones are in an unfamiliar spot. ISU has spent this decade as one of the top four programs in the league but post-Monte Morris life was tough this year. The Cyclones had just two losses entering Big 12 play but finished the regular season 13-17 overall and just 1-10 away from Hilton Coliseum.

One of the seven home losses Iowa State suffered was an overtime loss to Texas in January, 74-70. Iowa State pushed Texas for about 30 minutes in the rematch in Austin, but then Texas surged ahead and won 73-57. The Cyclones completely dropped off the last few weeks following a win over Oklahoma. ISU enters the tournament on a six-game losing streak, losing the last three by a combined 45 points.

Interesting fact: We’ve written before that Shaka Smart and ISU coach Steve Prohm are linked as both coaches were hired by their Big 12 schools during the same offseason. Since then, Smart is 1-2 in the Big 12 Tournament.¬† Prohm is 3-1 with a tournament championship last season.

Bottom line: Bamba and Roach combined for 46 points and 16 rebounds in the last matchup in Austin. Bamba also blocked three shots. In Ames, Osetkowski had 25 points and nine rebounds, while Bamba scored just 10 points but grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked four shots. Eric Davis’ 15 points off the bench was the difference. Will Bamba play?¬†Even if he can, will Texas chance it and try to beat ISU without him? I think Iowa State is ready for the season to be over. After beating OU, the Cyclones’ season was at a fork. They beat the Sooners and had Kansas at home the following the game. Kansas won 83-77 and that started a six-game losing streak. They haven’t been competitive in most of these games. Unless ISU fans make the Sprint Center “Hilton West,” I think Texas finds a way to win.

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