Revived Horns Jockey For Position At Texas Tech

A three-game win streak for the depleted Texas basketball team has rekindled talk of post-season seeding as the Horns face a critical contest at Texas Tech Tuesday.

Texas is 18-7 (7-5 Big 12) while Tech stands at 16-7 (8-4 Big 12). A UT win would lift the program to at least a tie for the fourth best record in the league and in contention for a first-round bye at the Big 12 Conference Tournament, March 10-13.

So, what does head coach Rick Barnes think now of his team’s post-season chances?

"We’ve lived by the thought that we’re going to put all of our energy into the next game," Barnes said. "We haven’t thought about positioning because I don’t even think we’ve been in a position to even think about that. Obviously, we need to win games like everybody does this time of year but I haven’t thought about where we’re going to end up, or how we’re going to do it."

Tuesday’s game matches the top two scoring offenses in the Big 12. The Red Raiders are averaging a league-leading 82.3 ppg (NCAA No. 4) while the Horns are right behind at 80.3 ppg (No. 12). Tech also paces the Big 12 with its 77.7 FT percentage (NCAA No. 4) while leading the nation in 3-point FG percentage (43.8 percent).

"They’re so well coached that they don’t take bad shots," Barnes said of the Red Raiders and their head coach Bobby Knight. "They very seldom take a bad shot. They get good looks, and they’ll turn down good looks for better looks. They do a great job of playing off of penetration. They really drive the ball well and they kick out. It goes back to shot selection. They don’t take any tough ones unless the situation comes where they have to go get a shot."

Senior G Ronald Ross leads his team with 17 ppg and is one of four Red Raiders averaging in double figures. He is averaging 20.6 ppg while shooting 57.1 percent in Big 12 play. Freshman G Martin Zeno (13.6 ppg) has led his team in scoring the past two games.

The Horns won the last meeting, 80-73, in Austin. It was the first test after LaMarcus Aldridge and P.J. Tucker, both front court starters, were lost for the season. As such, it arguably ranks as a more qualitative win in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee than does the 75-61 thumping of then-No. 5 Oklahoma State during Tucker’s last game on January 17.

The 80-73 win over Tech was Texas’ only win during a five-game stretch, but now the Horns are looking for their fourth consecutive ‘W’. A loss in Lubbock would not be fatal. But a victory at the United Spirit Arena, followed by a home win against Missouri Saturday, would give Texas its seventh straight 20 win-season and (in all likelihood) get the team off of the Tournament bubble.

"I just think that if we keep trying to do what we’re doing right now then hopefully in a couple of weeks we’ll have a good enough resume to where we don’t have to talk about anything other than that we finished up pretty strong," Barnes added.

Texas has turned up its play defensively during its current three-game winning streak. In this stretch, the Horns have balanced zone play with man defense, limiting their opponents to 57.3 ppg on a combined 33.1% FG shooting. The Horns relied almost exclusively on zone defense after losing both Tucker and Aldridge up until the second half of the Colorado game.

"If you took a vote of the players, they’d probably tell you that they like ‘man’ better," Barnes said. "Yet, they also believe the zone’s been good to us a lot of times. At the same time, I think we’re getting better with this group and we’ll use whatever defense we think we need at that time."

Guard Kenny Taylor started the first 20 games of the year at shooting guard and has come off the bench in the last five contests. The senior became Texas’ sixth man at Colorado when coaches believed there would be only six healthy bodies in a Longhorn uniform.

"We felt like we had to have a guard come off the bench as opposed to a front line guy," Barnes said.

But now that guards Sydmill Harris (groin) and Kenton Paulino (dislocated toe) are managing to play with painful injuries, I asked Barnes if he’ll start freshman F Dion Dowell and his taller lineup rather than Taylor the rest of the season.

"We never talk about starters," Barnes told me. "We really don’t. Before each game, (I’m asked), ‘Are you still starting the same guys?’ I’ll say, ‘Who are we starting? That’s fine with me.’ That’s pretty much how it works. I mean, we really don’t (talk about starters). I haven’t thought much about Kenny coming off the bench. "

Taylor recorded 15 points and five boards against Texas A&M, before posting 14 points and seven assists (tying his career high) at Baylor. He is tied for third on the team (among active players) in scoring (10.5 ppg) and second in minutes (28.4 mpg).

Brad Buckman continues to be a beast on the boards, and that’s led to scoring opportunities. In the pair of games following his Big 12 Player of the Week honors, Buckman posted 18 points and 13 rebounds in last Wednesday’s 75-40 thrashing of Texas A&M. The junior forward fell just one board shy of his fifth straight double-double (19 points, nine boards) during Saturday’s win at Baylor.

The Longhorns hold a 62-51 lead in the all-time series with Tech, which dates back to 1940, and have won 31 of the last 39 meetings between the two schools. Texas is 17-2 against the Red Raiders since the formation of the Big 12 Conference and 13-1 in the Rick Barnes era. The Horns are currently riding a seven-game win streak against Tech in Lubbock.

The Texas Tech game will be televised nationally at 7 p.m. (CST) by ESPN2.

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