On the surface, the 2011-12 Texas Longhorns are vaguely undeserving of their 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. After all, this team comprised of six freshmen failed on eight occasions to snare that all-important ‘signature win.’ Historically, a fridge-worthy victory is considered an essential prerequisite for the Tournament’s shadowy, bunker-inhabiting selection committee. But Texas, strangely, made the cut anyway as No. 11 seed. What do you make of that?
It’s called an aberration: this one proving how the absence of a sexy win isn’t necessarily a death knell, but how a baffling loss would’ve been. The Longhorns accrued none in either category, and for that they were outfitted with a polyester suit and pompadour wig. Ultimately, it mattered more that UT didn’t mess themselves against the disposable likes of Sam Houston State, North Texas, UT Arlington, Texas State, Nicholls State, Rice, and Texas Tech.
The Big 12 is not only a ‘major’ conference, but it was an elite one this season. Its heavyweights—No. 3 Kansas, No. 5 Missouri, and No. 13 Baylor—were all nearly bested by the awkward Longhorns at The Erwin Center (UT dropped the trio by a combined nine points). A point or three more here and there, and Rick Barnes, likely substantially aged, would’ve been able to doze without the aid of cough syrup — lots of cough syrup.
That worry, however interrupting, was needless. For weeks, the din of “Bracketologists” spoke of Texas as having to reach a .500 record in Big 12 play to be invited: they did (8-7). They further blurted out the necessity of reaching 20 wins: UT did that too, finishing 20-13. Those personalities can all retire until next February; but for UT, these things are just beginning.
Or, in a flash of lighting, ending.
The Longhorn’s “second-season” could last a scant 40 basketball minutes, or it may blossom into an enchanted odyssey that no one saw coming. The latter scenario would truly be the stuff of legend, especially for this herd: young, lacking a second-scorer, and unreliable under pressure. UT’s most glaring deficiency all season has been their pervasive failure to equip leading-scorer J’Covan Brown with a complimentary part. Brown averaged a herculean 20.1 points per game during the regular season. The team’s second-leading scorer? Freshmen guard Sheldon McClellan, at 11.3 per.
But whatever Texas’ fate, such outcomes start with the No. 6 seed Cincinnati Bearcats (24-10), of Big East fame. The East Region site, Nashville, Tenn., geographically favors Cincinnati, but the Longhorns recently asserted a previously blank road presence by defeating Iowa State on a neutral court at the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City. Despite that heartening win — one which undoubtedly cemented their Big Dance validity — UT must still wear the indignity of having gone two months and three days without a road or neutral court win this season.
Mix in Texas’ fruitless courtship of a marquee win, and Friday night’s matchup against the Bearcats seems an obvious mismatch. Although Cincinnati couldn’t crack the Top 25 by season’s end, it wasn’t for a scarcity of quality victories: They registered home wins over No. 11 Marquette and No. 18 Louisville and twice overpowered No. 15 Georgetown — first on Jan. 9 in D.C., 68-64, then again just days ago in a double-overtime thriller at Big East Tournament in New York City. Perhaps even more daunting was how they fared the next day against the No. 2 Syracuse Orangemen on the neutral Madison Square Garden Court; they lost, but narrowly, 71-68.
The Longhorns and Bearcats shared only one common opponent during the regular season: the drab Oklahoma Sooners (15-16). UT swept their home-and-away series with OU; while Cincinnati eked out a de facto home win back on Dec. 29. Read into it what you will, but don’t expend much thought for what’s basically just interesting trivia.
Expectations are low, justifiably. As a result, Rick Barnes and the program can practically float into next season complacent with earning their 14th consecutive tournament appearance. Who could blame them after such a trying and doubt-plagued campaign? Texas didn’t dazzle audiences like they did last season; instead, their regular season performance was rather blue-collar. It wasn’t glamorous, but the fact remains that the Longhorns have never missed the Tournament under Slick Rick — whose streak of guiding UT to 20-plus wins also carries-over into next season.
Go a little mad if you want, Austin, but keep those emotions in check: lest you get hurt.