Hoops: Season On The Brink

Texas coach Rick Barnes reminded media Monday that, just three weeks ago, he said things could get worse for Longhorn basketball. Things have. His roster is now down to just six scholarship players as Texas plays at Colorado Tuesday.

"I knew, then, some of the injuries that we had," Barnes said, "and I knew the only way to fix them was rest. When do you get to rest this time of the year?"

Freshman F Dion Dowell, who recorded a career-best nine points in 24 minutes during the 92-80 overtime loss to Iowa State, is expected to log his first start against the Buffaloes. A shoulder injury forced Dowell to miss eleven contests earlier in the season, but now he replaces G Sydmill Harris (groin), who took over for leading scorer and rebounder P.J. Tucker, who was ruled academically ineligible for the reaminder of the season on January 20. And despite a brief return to the practice court last week, freshman F LaMarcus Aldridge's season appears to be over due to a hip injury suffered almost a month ago. Meanwhile, junior G Kenton Paulino was wearing a boot on his left foot Monday after dislocating a toe against the Cyclones. Yep, it's been that kind of year for the 15-6 Longhorns, a team that was ranked in the Top Ten less than one month ago.

For Barnes, the constant turnover has made it seem like coaches are starting over every game as if it were the first day of the season.

"Right when you feel like you're working toward settling into something, something else happens where you then have to make some adjustments," Barnes said. "You've got to have the attitude that there's a reason (for this) and you've got to make the most of it."

Arguably, Texas had the deepest bench in D-I hoops when it began the season. But after losing two shooting guards and two frontcourt starters, Barnes is now two injuries away from starting a walk-on. Game day strategy has almost shifted from, say, how to put yourself in a position to grab more offensive boards while playing a 2-3 zone, to simply survival tactics. For Barnes, it's a matter of keeping players out of foul trouble, as fresh as possible while still putting themselves in a position to have a chance to win during the last four minutes of the game.

And that's what makes the home loss to Iowa State particularly painful -- the depleted Horns fought back from an early 13-point deficit to take its largest lead of the game at 65-57 with 5:04 remaining. F Brad Buckman tallied 20 points and 15 rebounds; the junior is a workhouse who battles so hard that sometimes you think his lungs might burst. But Saturday's game was a microcosm of Buckman's career -- he hits all of his shots except the clutch ones. Buckman missed a layup with 1:52 remaining and then the back-end of a one-and-one that would have put Texas up by four with 49 ticks left in regulation. Senior G Kenny Taylor also committed two turnovers in the final 63 seconds.

"What it gets down to is you don't have as much margin of error," Barnes said. "All of your possessions are important but they're certainly magnified right now."

The Horns lost for just the second time in 43 games at the Erwin Center. Freshman G Daniel Gibson was the only player on both sides of the ball to see action in all 45 minutes and finished as the game's leading scorer with 23 points (8-of-16 FG).

"We're disappointed because we feel like we had a game won and we didn't close it out and finish it," Barnes said. "People can analyze and say Daniel was tired and fatigued. A lot of guys were but you can't think about that. That's when you start making excuses and not give yourself a chance. Our attitude is we've got to get ourselves ready to play Colorado with six guys and two walk-ons and try to figure out a way to win a basketball game."

The thing you've got to love about Barnes is that you'll never see the guy offer alibis, or come close to waving the (orange and) white flag. Barnes believes he can go to Colorado, where Texas actually lost during its last visit to Boulder with T.J. Ford and company, with six scholarship players.

"I don't think you ever change expectations," Barnes said. "I'm not a cliche guy but we've always had the attitude that we're going to worry about one game, and only one game. You have to believe in a 40-minute game that anything can happen. I won't change that (attitude) for as long as I coach."

Texas is the only program in the Big 12 to have finished among the top three teams in the final regular season standings in each of the last six seasons. At 4-4 in league play, Texas is two games out of the No. 4 spot in the current standings. The top four teams receive a bye during the first round of the Big 12 Conference Tournament, March 10-13, at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. It probably would benefit the Horns if they were to open against the lowest seed (probably Baylor) to notch what would ideally be at least a 20th win of the season.

But Barnes refused to speculate about post-season play Monday, or even concern himself with his team's immediate future beyond Tuesday night's game in Boulder.

"We're not thinking about the NCAA Tournament or the Big 12 Tournament," Barnes said. "I don't think there's a coach in the country that thinks about that sort of thing right now. If you take care of what's in front of you, all that plays out for itself. We never thought that. We didn't think about that two years ago (during the Final Four campaign), and we didn't think about it last year. Our goal has been to go one game at a time. If you take care of that, then you take the next step."

Even so, Texas probably needs to at least split its remaining eight regular season conference games to secure a seventh-consecutive invitation to the Big Dance. That would give Texas at least a .500 mark in Big 12 standings and one game shy of the symbolic 20-win season benchmark. Barnes led the Horns to the NCAA Tournament during his first season with just 19 wins, but the 1998-99 team won the Big 12 title after surging toward the finish line.

You would think that games at Colorado and at Baylor -- plus home games against Kansas State, Texas A&M and Missouri are winnable -- and thus giving Texas a 20-win season for the sixth straight year. Then again, you woulda thunk that the home game Saturday against Iowa State was a 'W'. But with just six scholarship players capable of walking from one end of the court to the other without assistance, nothing is a given for Texas hoops these days.

Well, almost nothing. Barnes promises that the hustle and the heart are non-negotiable.

"I think our effort continues to be good," he said. "We're not going to let that get away from us because this program was built on hard work and guys committed to doing all that they could to help us. But we're never going to change our expectations."

The Colorado game is set for an 8:30 p.m. (CST) tipoff and will be televised in the states of Texas and Colorado on Fox Sports.


Feb. 8 at Colorado

Feb. 12 vs. Kansas State

Feb. 16 vs. Texas A&M

Feb. 19 at Baylor

Feb. 22 at Texas Tech

Feb. 26 at Missouri

Feb. 28 vs. Oklahoma

Mar. 5 at Oklahoma State

Mar. 10-13 Big 12 Tournament, Kansas City

Mar. 13 NCAA Selection Sunday

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