For Barnes, it is the "chance" to beat Kansas State (13-7, 3-6 Big 12) and reverse a rare three-game losing skid for his program. The seventh-year coach reiterated that he no more calculates what the team must do to secure a NCAA Tournament bid during this Murphy's Law of a season (where if something could go wrong, it will) than he did two years ago when his program grabbed a No. 1 seed on the way to the Final Four.
"I don't think you can think that way," Barnes said. "The reality is you've got to worry about the next game. You're only as good as your last game. We can't control anything except what we have. And what we have now is a 40-minute game Saturday against Kansas State. One thing I've always believed is that you've got to live in the moment. You've got to play in the moment. if you start wondering if we don't do this or if we don't do that, (you forget that) the bottom line is just do your job and take care of your responsibility day to day as a coach and as a player. If we're good enough we'll be there."
Barnes is absolutely correct to leave the speculation to fans and sports media. So here we go: Texas must win four of its final seven regular season games, and will have to win in the opening round against a lower-seeded team in the Big 12 Conference Tournament, to notch a 20-win season and finish at .500 in the league standings.
Specifically, Texas must win home games against KSU, Texas A&M, Missouri plus on the road at Baylor. Road losses at nationally ranked Oklahoma State and Texas Tech won't be the Bubble-busters since Texas has already notched wins over those programs. As unsavory as it sounds, a home loss to OU on Feb. 28 won't be lethal to Texas' Tournament chances. Add it up, and Texas stands at 20-11 on Selection Sunday, March 13.
Could Texas qualify with just 19 wins? The program could, and did, in Barnes' first season -- but the Horns finished strong in 1998-99 as Big 12 Conference champs. Could Texas punch its Dance ticket with a sub .500 regular season conference record? ACC teams have managed to do it, but it depends on how much respect the NCAA Selection Committee gives to your league. Currently, the Big 12 and the Big East are the only conferences with five ranked teams in both major wire service polls.
A 20-11 mark is certainly doable, but Saturday's game now shapes up as the most critical of the season. A loss to the lightly-regarded Wildcats makes games against OU and Texas Tech must-win for the Horns.
Texas, of course, lost leading scorer and rebounder P.J. Tucker for the season when he was declared academically ineligible to compete on January 20. On Thursday, it was officially announced that F LaMarcus Aldridge would sit out the remainder of the season and undergo hip surgery on March 1. The freshman was injured in the January 15 win at Nebraska. Junior G Kenton Paulino is out indefinitely after dislocating a toe in the overtime loss to Iowa State on February 4.
G Sydmill Harris is a projected starter for Saturday's game but is playing courageously through a painful groin injury that only rest will heal, Barnes said. Nobody expected Harris to play at Colorado Tuesday but the senior toughed it out for 27 minutes and hit a couple of treys in the 88-79 loss. The Horns trailed by 22 before a furious rally, cutting the deficit to four, fell short.
"I could sit here and rave about Syd all day long," Barnes told Inside Texas. "When he saw what we were going through the other night (at Colorado), he basically just said, 'To hell with this. I'm going to do whatever I can to help this team win this basketball game.' If you watched the game, you saw him diving on the floor, and you could tell he was in pain, going up high for rebounds, and every time he would come down you would just watch him wince. I told him after the game that I was as proud of him as anybody I've coached in a long time."
Freshman F Mike Williams started in place of Harris (who is starting in place of Tucker) Tuesday but struggled to get back on defense in the 2-3 zone, misfired on his only FG attempt and was just 2-of-7 from the FT line. It was Williams' first collegiate start, as it was freshman F Dion Dowell's. Dowell remains a projected starter for Saturday's ballgame in place of shooting guard Kenny Taylor while Harris is back in the starting rotation. It is a lineup that has practiced together just twice this season.
"The problem we have right now is trying to get some rhythm in practice," Barnes said. "We started the game with the two freshmen but, as the game went on, we ended playing Syd more than we should. We pretty much have to practice without Syd, so the hardest thing has been getting in rhythm, not knowing what we have and how it's going to play out. I mean, we don't know, from game to game."
The piecemeal approach has forced guys to adjust to new roles, if not to playing out of position. For example, both Brad Buckman and Williams spent more time on the perimeter than they were accustomed to (or even acclimated for). Dowell, a small forward, played inside for several possessions during 22 minutes of action.
"Guys like Mike Williams and Dion Dowell are getting experience," Barnes said. "You don't want guys getting experience in February but that's where we are right now."
Added Barnes: "These guys are going to do whatever it is they have to do. They're going to find a way to get through it. They're not going to make excuses. Obviously, our margin of error is smaller than it's ever been. We've got to find a way to do a couple of things better."
The "biggest single thing" that Texas must do better is "paying homage to the basketball gods," Barnes said. In other words, a strict adherence to fundamentals that will particularly cut back on sloppy turnovers. The Horns committed 15 turnovers that led to 23 points in Tuesday's loss at Colorado.
"Taking care of the basketball, making the extra pass so you don't turn the ball over, it goes back to fundamentals," Barnes noted. "Then again, it goes back to the rhythm that we're not able to create because it seems like every day it's a different team that we're trying to piece together. We've got to be better defensively but the single biggest thing is turnovers. That's just simple, fundamental basketball. You can talk about schemes you might want to exploit, but it's always going to get back to fundamental play."
The fine line between winning and losing amounts to "just a couple of possessions," Barnes is convinced.
"Whether they happen early in the game or in the middle, they're critical. That's what happened when we got down (by 22 at Colorado) and fought hard to get back (within four points)," Barnes said. "I told them after the game that we're not going to accept that. We didn't come here for moral victories. We come to win."
The Horns will be gunning for their first win since January 25, Saturday at 12:45 p.m. in the Erwin Center in an ESPN+ regional telecast.