1. Texas has come into this one riding a bit of a high, winners of three straight after getting off to a 3-6 conference start. Besides perhaps being the beneficiary of an easier portion of their schedule by playing a pair of the lower place conference members, what has changed for the Longhorns during their recent winning streak?
A: I think you hit the nail right on the head: it's the schedule. Sure, Texas is probably playing better basketball right now, but seven of its first nine games were against the league's top five teams — Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State — and Texas played four of the five on the road during that stretch. It isn't coincidental that Texas went 1-6 in the Big 12 through those contest (despite some close calls), and ended that nine-game stretch 3-6 in league play. But since then, Texas is 3-0, and has topped K-State in Austin. The Longhorns still have two games left against those top schools, Baylor at home and Kansas in Lawrence, but for the most part of a much more manageable schedule.
2. It seems like there's been some inconsistency for the 'Horns on both ends of the court at times this season, why the reason for that?
A: A lot of people would call it inexperience, and they wouldn't be wrong. Texas typically starts three freshmen, and lost all five starters from a year ago. The two most experienced players are J'Covan Brown, an off-the-bench dynamo last year, and Alexis Wangmene, who was the Longhorns' third or fourth big man a season ago.
So that's certainly part of it. But as San Antonio Express-News writer Mike Finger has written, this year's version of the Longhorns just seems to have a "hard button", as opposed to the "easy button" floated by Staples. Texas seldom makes the easy play, and as such can often make life harder on itself. The Longhorns are capable of being excellent defensively, but suffer lapses on that end. And offensively, they have the players to do well, but are only now really starting to find their ebb-and-flow.
3. In your estimation, what are Texas' chances at the NCAA Tournament, and how crucial is this game and the second Red River Rivalry game in a couple of weeks towards earning a bid to the big dance?
A: I've said before that people put too much emphasis on the statement "must win". A team shouldn't have a must-win game in the month of January, as some were saying about this team. But at this point, every game is so important just because the Longhorns' margin of error is so thin.
Here are the numbers: Texas has league six games left, and in order to make the NCAA Tournament, likely needs to go 4-2 over those contests. That puts Texas at 20-11 prior to the Big 12 Tournament, and leaves Texas with a winning record (10-8) in conference play. There are some difficult games in that stretch: two rivalry games against Oklahoma, trips to Stillwater and Lawrence, and Baylor visiting Austin. If Texas just beats the teams it "should" (just by looking at the Big 12 standings), the Longhorns can get there by sweeping Oklahoma and winning at Stillwater and Lubbock. But losing any one of those four games makes that margin for error razor thin, and means that Texas will have to beat a top-three league team to accomplish that feat.
That's not impossible, and Texas did nearly escape Waco with a win, but you'd rather it not come to that point.
4. The Longhorns are just 2-7 away from the Frank Erwin Center this year, including a 2-5 mark in true road games with two losses at neutral sites. Why have they struggled on the road at times?
A: I think a part of that is that those road losses have come to top teams. Texas's five road losses have come at North Carolina, at Iowa State, at Missouri, at Kansas State and at Baylor. The two neutral site games are far enough away that they aren't as big a deal, two games that Texas should have won but lost down the stretch in the season's first two weeks.
The only two road games that Texas hasn't played against teams at the top of the table were contests at UCLA and Texas A&M, and the Longhorns won those games. So I'm not sure that Texas is that much worse in the road. In fact, Texas had chances down the stretch to win at Kansas State and at Baylor, and probably would have won at Iowa State, if not for J'Covan Brown going down with an ankle injury after Texas came roaring back to tie the game in Ames. Brown went out and about six minutes later, Iowa State led by 15.
So a couple breaks here or there, and we could be talking about a team with a winning record on the road, despite its difficult competition.
5. What is the one biggest key for Texas to win this game?
A: I think Texas has to defend well. You know, it's funny: when people watch the Longhorns, the one thing that they routinely mention that the offense doesn't flow well. So they're often surprised to hear that Texas is a top-20 team nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. And for a Rick Barnes team, this squad doesn't defend especially well, ranking 38th in adjusted defensive efficiency (for comparison's sake, last year's team was No. 2 nationally in that category)..
Now, I'll be the first to admit that Texas can get bogged down in the halfcourt. So that's also where defense becomes big: the Longhorns are at their best when they can get out into transition, with speedy point guard Myck Kabongo handling the reins, J'Covan Brown looking for a place to spot up and athletic wings like Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis attacking the bucket. Kabongo can be especially tough at driving into contact and creating free throw opportunities.
So defense is really a catch-all for this team. When they defend well, as they did against Kansas State on Saturday, they can get out and run, find open shot opportunities, and really display the ability to play up to their talent level.