1) The Longhorns may have tired legs
When a boxer's body breaks down, the first thing to go is the legs. When a basketball player suffers from fatigue, the first thing to go is the jump shot.
Not coincidentally, in the Longhorns' three losses, their top three jump shooters all shot below their season-long percentages. Of the three — Jordan Hamilton, Gary Johnson and Cory Joseph — Johnson fared the best, hitting 11-of-25 shots, or 44 percent over the three games. That's not a terrible figure, though it's still more than four percent below Johnson's rate of 48.5 percent over the other 27 contests.
Joseph hit just 12-of-32 in those three games, or 37.5 percent, down from his season average of 44.2 percent, while Hamilton's performance truly plummeted. At one point among the country's most efficient high-volume scorers, Hamilton made just 15-of-58 shots, or 25.8 percent, more than 20 percent down from the 46.6 percent he shot in the other 27 games.
The Longhorns aren't a very deep team, often limiting their bench to seven players seeing solid minutes in big games. The Longhorns' bench players account for 27.3 percent of the team's minutes, according to Ken Pomeroy, well below the national average of 31.0 minutes. Contrast that with fellow Big 12 contender Kansas, which plays its bench players 34.3 percent of available minutes.
Out of the KenPom Top 10, only three teams give bench players a smaller percentage of minutes, and all three of those squads play at a slower tempo than the Longhorns do.
2) The Longhorns are inexperienced
It's easy to forget now that the season has played out, but a large part of the reason Texas wasn't picked as a top-two team in the Big 12 this year was because the squad lacked experience. Two freshmen — Joseph and Tristan Thompson — are among the team's top three in minutes played and minutes per game. Two more in the top five — Hamilton and J'Covan Brown — are sophomores, with Johnson marking the only senior. It's the same story when it comes to scoring buckets, with four of the top five scorers ranking as freshmen and sophomores.
In fact, Texas's top six of Hamilton, Thompson, Johnson, Joseph, Brown and senior Dogus Balbay entered the year with just 61 starts between them, 35 for Balbay, 17 for Johnson and nine for Brown.
Again, we'll compare that to the Longhorns' primary competition this year in Kansas. The Jayhawks' top six in minutes per game, in order, are senior Tyrel Reed, junior Marcus Morris, junior Tyshawn Taylor, senior Brady Morningstar, junior Markieff Morris and freshman Josh Selby. There, the underclassmen are the minority: only Selby lacked significant college experience. The group also boasted plenty of starting experience. All five juniors or seniors started multiple games in their careers, combining for 167 starts, or 106 more than the Longhorns.
Obviously, experience isn't everything. Talent is certainly more important. But if talent is equal, expect the players who have been through the wars before to know what to do to get out of tricky situations.
3) It's tough to win on the road, especially against the little guy
It may sound strange, but it's often more difficult to beat a lesser team. Why? Because it's harder to motivate a team to prepare for a lesser opponent. Everyone gets nipped on the road in the Big 12, and often it's by the Nebraskas and Colorados of the world, teams motivated to take out a ranked squad.
The Cornhuskers were a dangerous foe from the beginning, one tailor-made for Longhorn frustration. All year long, Texas has struggled against teams that outsized the Longhorns in the paint, and Nebraska is one of the country's biggest teams. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers could get the ball in the lane because they had a fire hydrant of a point guard in Lance Jeter, whose ideal strength came in handy against Balbay, typically one of the country's most physical defenders.
Colorado was another story. The Longhorns never seemed to get into the game defensively. In that way, the 22-point lead was a form of fool's gold, one minted almost exclusively by the oh-so-hot hand of Brown. The Buffaloes cut that lead to 15 at halftime, a lead that certainly isn't safe against the likes of Alec Burks, one of the country's most explosive scorers, and Levi Knutson, a deadeye three-point shooter. When the Longhorns went cold, and didn't have the defense to back it up, the lead evaporated.
Of course, that doesn't account for the loss to Kansas State, but the Wildcats were the lone legitimate loss, a defeat to a team originally picked to win the conference, and a talented squad playing its best basketball of the season.
Even with all of that, Texas could have claimed a victory by doing the little things correctly. The Longhorns stood around too much offensively, and Hamilton twice left Rodney McGruder wide open for game-changing three-pointers.
It should also be noted that it's just tough to close conference play successfully. By then, all the film is out, your weaknesses exposed and the season keeps grinding on. Last year, Kansas State lost to Iowa State on its Senior Night. And in 2008-2009, Kansas was nipped by an inferior Texas Tech squad in Lubbock late.
As a final note, many people will blame Rick Barnes for this stretch, but I don't think it's his issue. The problem isn't with coaching: the Longhorns know how to play well and do the little things, as they've done them before. No, Barnes can't take the team's jump shots for them, not any more than he can defend McGruder and Burks. And I feel uncomfortable lumping a season's blame on the same coach that I thought did such a masterful job in winning the Kansas game, owning the Big 12 South and controlling the Missouri game from tip to buzzer.
I've always felt that a coach's primary job, in any sport, is simply to put his players in a position to succeed. This season, Barnes has done a wonderful job of mixing a flawed and inexperienced roster, minimized the harm to one of the league's smallest frontcourts and has the Longhorns playing their tails off. That's really all you can ask.
Then there's this: before the season, when looking over the Texas roster, if someone asked a random Texas fan whether they'd be OK with a potential 25-6 record, along with a 13-3 Big 12 mark, we all know that the reply would have been "sign me up." So while the season hasn't closed smoothly — and few seasons do in college basketball — it's not over yet. These Longhorns have shown a propensity to surprise.