Texas Planting Seeds At Big 12 Tourney

What a difference a few days make! Following Texas’ 74-73 win at Oklahoma State last Saturday, the Horns open Big 12 Tournament play in Kansas City Thursday looking to improve their NCAA seed rather than simply fighting to get into the Big Dance.

After residing squarely on the bubble for several weeks, Texas (20-9, 9-7 Big 12) now is projected as an eight seed in the most recent update of ESPN.com's Bracketology report.

In KC, the Horns will not only have an opportunity to solidify or better that seeding but also avenge perhaps the most damaging loss of the season, an 88-79 loss on Feb. 8 at Colorado (13-15, 4-12), when it tips off against the Buffaloes at 8:20 p.m. at Kemper Arena.

Thursday’s contest marks the 16th meeting between the two schools and their third clash in the Big 12 Tournament. Texas is 2-0 against the Buffs in the conference tourney while holding a slim 8-7 lead in the all-time series that dates back to 1967 before the schools became conference opponents in the 1996-97 season.

For the first time in the Rick Barnes era, Texas is playing in a first-round contest in the Big 12 Tournament in an injury-riddled season that saw one of college hoops deepest benches reduced to eight scholarship players (only five of which who are truly healthy). Texas was the only school to have received a first-round bye in the Big 12 tourney during each of the previous six tournaments.

But the Horns have been fighting for their NCAA lives ever since losing two front court starters during the same week. Freshman F LaMarcus Aldridge suffered a season-ending hip injury at Nebraska on January 15 while, five days later, leading scorer and rebounder P.J. Tucker was ruled academically ineligible.

Texas was particularly short-handed when it traveled to Boulder on February 8. Junior G Kenton Paulino was sidelined with a dislocated toe. Senior G Sydmill Harris (groin) was not expected to play but gutted it out for 27 minutes.

"There are a lot of teams that win with just eight players in the rotation," Barnes said, "but we never knew what we were going to get from week to week."

Freshman F Dion Dowell, who injured his right knee in Saturday’s win at Oklahoma State, is listed by Texas as a projected starter for Thursday. In a surprise move, Paulino is also slated to start just his third game of the season. In all likelihood, Barnes wants his two best ball handlers on the floor (Paulino ran the point last season) because the key stat in Texas’ loss at CU was 15 Longhorn turnovers leading to 22 fast break points.

Guard play, according to the adage, is typically the single most important factor determining a team’s chances of advancing deep into the post-season. Obviously, Texas’ chances are significantly bolstered if Big 12 Freshman of the Year Daniel Gibson can get a little help from his back court mates.

With Harris and Paulino in Texas’ eight-man rotation, the Horns have posted a 5-2 mark in their last seven games. The ‘X Factor’, however, may be senior G Kenny Taylor. Consider this: Taylor has averaged 15.0 points per contest during those five wins but has averaged just 5.0 ppg during Texas’ last two losses (Texas Tech, Oklahoma). Taylor recorded 11 points (4-of-8 FG) and six boards in the upset at No. 8 Oklahoma State on Saturday. With its upset win in Stillwater, Texas extended its school-record six consecutive 20-win seasons. Prior to the current streak, the previous high water mark for most consecutive 20-win seasons was four (1988-89 to 1991-92).

Junior F Brad Buckman had a career-best 27 points, 21 rebounds and five blocked shots in the loss at Colorado, while matching his career-high point total in the win at OSU. Over the last nine games, Buckman has posted five double-doubles while averaging 17.1 ppg and 11.1 rpg and hitting 45-of-75 FG (60 percent). Paulino leads the team in three-point shooting (39-78, 50 percent), but Buckman is a surprising No. 2. After converting just 4-of-15 (.267) treys during his first two seasons, Buckman is hitting 44.7 percent (17-of-38) from beyond the arc this season. Buckman has also been a beast on the boards following the loss of his front court mates, averaging 11.2 rebounds per game since the Jan. 22 Oklahoma game, the team's first without Tucker.

Texas holds a 9-8 (.529) mark in the eight-year history of the Big 12 Tournament. Nine of Texas’ previous 17 games in the Big 12 tourney have been decided by six points or less. The Horns have reached at least the semifinal round in six of their first eight appearances in the Big 12 tourney, including five of their first six trips under Barnes. Texas has reached the finals twice (2001, 2004).

The game will be televised by ESPN Regional (Big 12 markets) and nationally by ESPNU. The winner will advance to play No. 3 seed Oklahoma State, 8:20 p.m. Friday. The NCAA Selection Committee will announce the Tournament bracket late Sunday afternoon.

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