Hoops: Horns return to the ranks of the unranked

After clawing into the national rankings last week for the first time since preseason, Texas made a quick exit back to the land of the unranked Monday. The Horns did not crack the top 25 in either of this week's national polls, coming in five spots out of both the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and the AP Top 25.

UT's Wednesday night 80-74 home loss to Texas A&M precipitated the poll punishment.

The Horns pulled out a road W in Waco Saturday night, 69-63 over Baylor, in what turned into a must-win after the loss to the Aggies, to prevent a total RPI meltdown. Great performances by T.J. Ford (seven points, seven assists and nine rebounds), James Thomas (a game-high 16 boards) and Deginald Erskin (15 points in 20 minutes) helped seal the win over the Bears and keep Texas in the simulated RPI top 20. UT plunged from No. 6 to No. 20 after the Aggie loss but bounced back to No. 15 following the hard-fought win at Baylor's Ferrell Center.

With Saturday night's victory, the Horns moved to 14-5 overall and more importantly, to 5-1 in the Big 12, behind only 6-0 Kansas in league play.

Through just over a third of the league schedule, the Big 12 battle -- both for the conference title and for NCAA tourney post-season berths -- is shaping up to involve six teams. The upper tier consists of AP No. 2 Jayhawks (17-2, 6-0), unranked UT (14-5, 5-1), No. 22 Missouri (15-5, 5-2), No. 6 OU (15-3, 4-2), No. 20 Tech (15-3, 4-2) and a recently fading but still No. 9 OSU (17-3, 4-3). Those six teams are a combined 20-2 over the league's bottom six of Colorado (11-6, 2-4), Baylor (12-7, 2-4), A&M (8-12, 2-4), Nebraska (9-9, 2-5), K-State (7-10, 1-5) and Iowa State (9-12, 1-6).

KU squares off with MU, another of the league's elite teams, tonight in an ESPN Big Monday match-up. The Horns head to Manhattan Wednesday to take on the Wildcats in what is essentially another must-win game for UT's league title hopes and for its more realistic Big 12 Tourney opening round bye (a top four regular season finish) chances. Also Wednesday night, the Sooners and the Cowboys clash in Norman in another match-up that will have major Big 12 implications.

Assuming the Horns get by the Wildcats Wednesday, Saturday afternoon's Texas-Oklahoma meeting in the Erwin Center may provide the clearest indication yet whether UT is a league championship caliber team.

Hoops notes: Texas has played or will play seven members of the current RPI top 20 (No. 1 Kansas, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 5 Arizona, No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 11 Oklahoma State, No. 12 Indiana and No. 20 Utah). UT's move to No. 15 from No. 20 in RPI is largely due to its recent win in Lubbock over Tech, which leaped in the rankings following its big home win over OU on Saturday. Since losing to the Horns, the Red Raiders have blown out both the Sooners and the Cowboys at the United Spirit Arena. . . . Kansas State, the Horns' next opponent, is No. 177 in the most recent simulated RPI.

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