Missouri Is Texas' Next Must-Win Game

Sure, every game counts in college hoops. And head coach Rick Barnes wants his bunch to play as if each contest was the last. But Saturday's next-to-last home game shapes up as must-win if the Longhorns want to advance to a seventh straight NCAA Tournament.

"This time of year, obviously, our guys understand how important this game is and every one we play from here on out," Barnes said. "We've got to go out and give it a great effort. We've got to get great effort from every one."

True, there are three remaining regular season matches on the schedule. It's just that Saturday's game against Missouri (14-13, 6-7 in Big 12) looms as the most winnable. Texas closes out the home stretch with a Senior Day send-off against archrival Oklahoma on an ESPN 'Big Monday' telecast before traveling to Oklahoma State for another ESPN game next Saturday. But if the 18-8 Longhorns take care of business at home this weekend, they will have at least notched a .500 conference slate. It could be enough in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee when bids are announced March 13.

"I think our guys have known all year long what we're playing for and where we want to be," Barnes added. "It's about playing and executing. They know what's at stake this time of year. We're just going to talk about playing, about executing and doing a better job of taking care of the basketball, and to get everybody to bring their best game. That's all you can talk about. If you're not playing good basketball, none of it matters."

Odds are that the Big 12 will land six invites to the Big Dance. If not, then a fifth-and-final bid will come down to Texas and Iowa State (both at 7-6 in league play). The Cyclones started off 0-5 in conference play before reeling off seven straight (including Ws over nationally ranked Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and then No. 18/20 Texas). The Aggies did Texas a big favor Tuesday by cooling of the 'Clones, 75-59, in College Station. But Iowa State, at 15-9, has the smoothest sailing down the stretch by closing out at home against Nebraska and Missouri before traveling to Colorado. Both Texas and Iowa State should enter the Big 12 Conference Tournament with at least 19 wins on their resume. A single win in Kansas City should notch 20-win seasons for both clubs and, in likelihood, punch their Dance cards since those numbers came in a rugged, reputable league.

"There's no doubt that, from top to bottom, the Big 12 is as good, if not better, than any league in the country," Barnes said. "If people don't think that we're one of the top leagues in the country, they're mistaken."

Like its football counterpart, Missouri is the most schizophrenic team in the conference. Coach Quinn Snyder sits on the hottest seat in Big 12 hoops. The Tigers always seem to notch impressive wins over quality opponents and then suffer inexplicable defeats to the bottom-feeders. This year, MU has wins over Oklahoma and Gonzaga while playing Illinois to the wire. But the Tigers lost eight-of-nine from January 11 through February 9.

It also seems like Texas runs into a team right when it starts to hit its stride (see Iowa State) as the Tigers are currently riding a season-best four-game winning streak. It all began with a 68-65 OT win over the Sooners on February 12. No small part of Missouri's resurgence has been the elevated play of Linas Kleiza. The sophomore leads his team in scoring (15.3 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg)

"Kleiza a tough post player because he's versatile, he goes inside-outside, he's a tough guy to defend," Barnes said. "I would say Missouri is a team that's capable of beating any team in this league on any given night."

If Barnes is using the "on any given night" rhetoric, then it tells you a little something about the current state of Missouri hoops. It's a good thing, then, that Missouri game is slated for a noon tip-off on ABC.


Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis included Texas' Daniel Gibson as among the nation's Top 10 point guards in the February 26 edition. Wake Forest sophomore Chris Paul tops the list but Gibson is the only freshman mentioned. Gibson leads his team in scoring (14 ppg), assists (105) and steals (47). SI describes Gibson as a "can score from anywhere" future NBA All-Star who "might be the best at the position this time next year."


Two wins in two weeks should guarantee a seventh-straight NCAA Tournament bid for the Horns:

Sat., Feb. 26, Missouri

Mon., Feb. 26, Oklahoma

Sat., Mar. 5, at Oklahoma State

Thur., Mar. 10, Opening Round, Big 12 Tourney, Kansas City

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