Head Coach Rick Barnes knows first hand the fickle nature of the NCAA seeding process. In 2001, Texas was the Big 12 runner-up and advanced to the Conference Tournament Final but was seeded No. 6 when brackets were announced. Last year, Texas was the Big 12 runner-up, lost by double-digits in its opening Conference Tournament game, and drew the first No. 1 seed in school history.
"I know in the past, not last but year before, I was a little concerned with the seed that we got and I talked with our commissioner," Barnes said, "and sometimes depending on how a championship game can be played out, they can make a decision right there at the end. That's why I wish sometime our conference tournament was finished on Saturday as opposed to Sunday. I think the committee works right up to the very last game to figure out what they're going to do, so I think when you go out and play, you better make them all work and account for you."
The Big 12 Conference's contract with ESPN mandates that the Tournament Final be played on Sunday. Regardless of seeding and the year-end skid, Friday's match-up begins a new "season" for Barnes' bunch.
"We break the season down to four or five different seasons, one being the preseason and obviously the Big 12 regular season," Barnes said. "Our goal was to win Big 12 regular season championship which we didn't do. So when we finished up against Kansas State that was the end of that season. Now we have a whole new season and regardless of how well we did this year in the regular season, it all goes out the window right now because we've got another season starting this weekend. It's a three-day season. If we can play well and win a tournament championship, I think our players understand what it's about this time of year. I think they're looking forward to playing. I don't think the loss at Kansas State will have any bearing at all on how we come to Dallas and play. I think our guys have always been able to bounce back. The fact of the matter is we were beaten by Kansas State the last game of the season and it can happen (again) if we don't play good. If we rebound the way we've rebounded the last couple of games, we probably won't win any games and we certainly have to get to the free throw line more than we have. That's pretty much the problem we've had the last two games."
In the past two games, opponents have been to the line 54 times compared to just 25 for Texas. UT leads the Big 12 in rebound margin (+7) but got outrebounded in both losses to Oklahoma State and at Kansas State.
Texas has been a top four seed, earning the automatic bye, every season during Barnes' six-year tenure. In Big 12 Tourney history, the Horns have twice lost their opening game, in 1997 and just last season when second-seeded Texas fell 92-81 to No.7 Texas Tech. UT has posted a 7-7 mark in the seven year history of the Big 12 Tournament.
The Sooners are the three-time defending Big 12 Tournament champion but are considered an NCAA 'bubble team' this year. Texas reversed an eight-game losing streak to OU in 2003 and have won four straight over its Red River rival.
Texas, of course, boasts four seniors who played huge roles on last year's Final Four team but placed no players on the recently released Associated Press All-Big 12 team. This is due, in part, to Barnes' spread-the-wealth approach (limiting individual stats while expanding his bench) as well as to injuries to C James Thomas (back) and G Brandon Mouton (ankle). Sophomore F Brad Buckman never found his post-season form from his freshman campaign and lost his starting assignment in mid-February.
"I'm not sure what the recognition is for our guys," Barnes said. "I know this, it takes a lot of character to be a part of the kind of team that we've put together this year with so many guys being involved and so many guys we can count on. I think it speaks volume for our players in terms of how unselfish they've been all year. I think that they've bought into each other. I'm not sure the players get the recognition individually that they probably deserve."
The streaky Mouton, Texas' leading scorer with 13.4 ppg, was named to the AP Second Team while Thomas, Royal Ivey, junior C Jason Klotz, senior F Brian Boddicker and freshman F P.J. Tucker were each named Honorable Mention.
If Texas wins Friday, it advances to the Big 12 Semifinal set for 3:20 p.m. (CST) Saturday vs. Friday's Kansas-Missouri winner.