What We've Learned

From emerging players to the Longhorns' NCAA Tournament hopes, here are five in-depth thoughts on the Texas season so far.

* Texas has a chance to make a little run. What's that you say? Is that too optimistic following a 4-6 start to league play, one that saw the Longhorns win just two of their last seven contests?

Here's what stands out to me about those figures. First, seven of the Longhorns' first nine conference games were against the top five teams in the Big 12 — Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State — with four of those seven contests coming on the road. The Longhorns only have to make one brutal (read: top-five league) road trip in their final eight games, a trip to Kansas. Out of the Longhorns' six conference losses, all came to those top teams: Kansas and Missouri in Austin and Missouri, Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State on the road. The Longhorns even beat Iowa State (currently the league's fourth-best team) when the Cyclones traveled to Austin.

Second, it wasn't like Texas was getting its skull beaten in, even during that difficult stretch. The Longhorns had several close contests, and lost those five games by an average of 4.8 points per contest.

That means that Texas only has three games against top five teams in its final eight: at Kansas and Baylor and Kansas State in Austin. Both Baylor and Kansas State are winnable contests that the Longhorns nearly stole on the road. If Texas can win one of those two, and win the games it is supposed to, the Longhorns could finish all the way at 10-8 in league play, likely putting the Longhorns in a decent situation to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

* Ignore the recent shooting percentage: J'Covan Brown is starting to heat up.

Brown went 5-for-13 in the Longhorns' win against Texas Tech over the weekend, yet another game in which the Big 12's leading scorer shot below 40 percent. But look at it from another way: Brown scored 17 points without taking an overwhelming number of shots.

That's because Brown put together a vintage effort, one that saw him barrel into the lane, take contact and get to the free throw line. And as much as people like to talk about Brown's pretty stroke, he's at his best when he's playing ugly, using his hitches and smooth ball-handling ability to get among the trees, get players into foul trouble and convert free throws.

The Longhorns have had an over-reliance on Brown all season, with somewhat of a good reason. But one of the byproducts is that Brown has evolved a bit as a playmaker and at creating shots for others. Those two things also improve when Brown decides to get to the basket, forcing defenses to collapse and creating better opportunities for others.

* Against the good teams, Myck Kabongo getting the team out-and-running will be key.

Much has been made about the Longhorns' seeming inability to run, and the reasons why are twofold. First, the Texas offense often bogs down in the halfcourt, meaning that the Longhorns should take advantage of any and all opportunities to get easy buckets. And second, the Longhorns have a roster that is packed full of athletes who, theoretically, should be able to get up-and-down the floor well.

Chief among those athletes is Kabongo, a player with high-class speed in the open court. But Kabongo hasn't always been able to get the Longhorns out to run, a function at times of his teammates' inability to keep up. According to statistics guru Ken Pomeroy, the Longhorns rank 214th nationally in adjusted tempo.

Still, Kabongo has shown, in flashes, an ability to go coast-to-coast and put serious pressure on the defense. And in Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis, the Longhorns have a pair of players tailor-made for the transition game. If Kabongo can key the Texas running game, the Longhorns should be able to get more open, and better, shots. That would improve their slumping field goal percentage.

* People looking to trash Rick Barnes usually look at the Longhorns' struggles in halfcourt offense. But if you want to see just how good he is, look at the other side of the court. Texas has been excellent defensively at times this year, ranking in the top 30 (29th) in adjusted defensive efficiency despite facing the 12th most difficult schedule in terms of opponent offensive efficiency.

And think of the pieces he's done it with. A huge portion of the team is young. The other portion? Inexperienced. Yet he's managed to bring the tradition of a tough defense forward. Last year's team ranked second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. This year's isn't quite at that level, but the efficiency total of 91.3 would have been good enough for a top-25 defense a year ago.

So no, Texas doesn't always appear to have the most beautiful, well-flowing halfcourt offense around. But the reason the Longhorns' games appear "ugly" is that Texas doesn't allow the other teams to get into their flowing offense either. And the fact that Barnes has been able to do that with a team filled with first-time major contributors at this level is a huge feather in his cap.

* This Texas team is better than you think right now. How much better? KenPom, based solely on statistics, has the Longhorns as his number 20 team right now, and his fourth-best team in the Big 12 behind Kansas (No. 3), Missouri (No. 7) and Baylor (No. 11).

Granted, that seems lofty for a team with a losing conference record, and one that many people have already (stupidly) written out of the NCAA Tournament (more on this in a minute). But the Longhorns split with the No. 4 team in the league in Iowa State, and might have taken both games if not for an untimely injury to Brown. The Longhorns have also thrown a serious scare into each of the three teams above them in the KenPom poll.

So let's go back to the scenario listed above: Texas wins at Texas A&M, at Oklahoma State, at Texas Tech, the Kansas State game and two games against Oklahoma, the Kansas State game and loses to Baylor in Austin and Kansas in Lawrence. That's certainly not inconceivable, right? That puts Texas at 20-11 before hitting the Big 12 Tournament, with wins over Iowa State, Kansas State and Temple, three teams currently in the KenPom top 40.

That might not be a perfect resume, but with 20 wins, and winning record in a conference with three top-15 teams, I have a hard time believing that the Longhorns will be left at home. They also would fit the "heating up" category (having won seven of nine), and would have a chance to add to that win total in the Big 12 Tournament.

So while it certainly would have been nice to sneak out an earlier game against a top team, many were probably a bit too quick to slap the "must win" tag on contests. It's just too long a season to do that.

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