But which 8-8 team?
The most likely scenario in this final weekend of the regular season is that Texas, Texas A&M and Iowa State will all finish at 8-8. (The Aggies close at Baylor while Iowa State visits Colorado.) Kansas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech are locks. There is no way that seven teams from the Big 12 will receive NCAA bids when pairings are announced on March 13. The Tournament Selection committee picked only four conference teams last season, while choosing six in 2003.
Currently, Iowa State has the worst overall slate at 16-10 but has posted wins over Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. A&M will be 18-9 after handing Baylor its 15th league loss and Billy Gillispie is a solid choice for Big 12 Coach of the Year honors. But the Aggies' RPI is a joke and A&M does not have the NCAA Tournament pedigree that bodes well for Texas.
Even though Texas knocked off then No. 5 Oklahoma State, 75-61, in Austin on January 17, the Tournament Selection Committee will pay particularly attention to how Texas fared since losing P.J. Tucker (academics) and LaMarcus Aldridge (hip) in late January. Since then, Texas has dropped six of 11 games, including two at home. The Horns most impressive win was a home 'W' against Texas Tech on January 25, but Texas' only road win since losing both front court starters was at lowly Baylor on February 19.
Last Monday's 74-58 home loss to OU was so ugly that Texas probably needs to win two games between now and Selection Sunday. (Remember, the season-opening win over Chaminade doesn't count because the host team of the Maui Invitational is a Division-II program. It means Texas has only 18 wins that count toward its total for seeding purposes.)
Of course, an improbable win at Oklahoma State would change everything. It would result in Texas grabbing sole possession of fifth place and, in all likelihood, a fifth and final bid for the Big 12 to the Tournament. It would also produce a far more favorable pairing for Texas at the conference tournament next week at Kansas City. A fifth-place finish means Texas would open against Baylor before facing Texas Tech. Otherwise, the Horns would open against either Colorado or Kansas State to have a chance to face either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State.
But if eight is enough conference wins to punch Texas' ticket to the Big Dance, then Barnes also believes his eight remaining scholarship players are capable enough to upset Oklahoma State on the road.
"One of the worst feelings as a coach is to think you have to play perfect to beat somebody," he said. "I've never felt like that, to this point, that we've got to play perfect. We don't have the margin of error that we had at the start of the season. But there's no doubt that we can still win in this league and not play perfect."
All Barnes has asked his club to do is at least be in the ball game and have a chance to win during the final four minutes. Texas has managed to accomplish that in all matches except against Oklahoma Monday and at Kansas, January 29. For Texas to have a chance Saturday, it must (all together now) cut back on its rash of turnovers, find an effective ball handler who can at least give G Daniel Gibson five minutes of R&R on the bench, and junior F Brad Buckman must emerge from his two-game funk.
Buckman was one board shy against Baylor from posting six straight double-doubles before running into foul trouble against Missouri. Barnes benched Buckman for 14 minutes of the second half against OU because... well, we'll let Buck explain it:
"If I don't play my best, then (backup) Mike (Williams) is going to come in and play," Buckman said. "I've got to bring it every day. I can't rely on those double-doubles that I had during that stretch. It can all go out in one game."
One game. It's almost come down to that for the 2004-05 Longhorns.
Texas and Oklahoma State are slated for an 8 p.m. tip-off in an ESPN national broadcast.