The Horns tip-off 11:30 a.m., Friday against Texas Tech at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Red Raiders advance courtesy of their 73-65 win against Kansas State in the First Round of the Tournament. The Big 12 Co-Champion Longhorns (25-5, 13-3 in league play) are considered a virtual lock for a NCAA No. 2 seed with a chance to state its case for a No. 1. Yet, the consensus is that the Big 12 Tournament title game is played so late (2 p.m. Sunday) that it does not affect the bracket.
The Tournament Selection Committee has demonstrated that it will slot Big 12 Tournament 'winner' for a particular seed, as well as for Big 12 Tournament 'loser.' Case-in-point: No. 18 Texas received the sixth seed in the 2001 NCAA South Regional when it fell to No. 16 Oklahoma 54-45 in the Big 12 Tournament final. The Sooners received the No. 2 seed, but would have dropped to No. 6 had Texas maintained a double-digit lead. The flipside is Texas was one-and-done when it fell to seventh-seeded Texas Tech, 92-81, in the 2003 Big 12 Tournament but the Horns parlayed its top-seed all the way to the program's first Final Four appearance since the 1946-47 season.
The Selection Committee is generally expected to weight its decision on Texas' body of work throughout the regular season, which includes wins over nationally ranked Villanova, Memphis, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa and West Virginia. It begs the question of whether it's more advantageous for Texas to exhaust itself trying to win a relatively meaningless conference tournament on the cusp of the Big Dance. The way Barnes looks at it, his team will either "play hard" or "practice hard" this weekend.
"I've thought about it for a long time, and I think it's better to play hard," was Barnes' tongue-in-cheek remark. "It took me a long time to come to that conclusion."
Added Barnes: "I've never been one of those people who buy in to the idea that you go win a game and come home. This is the time of year you want to be playing your best basketball. I think the mindset is so important this time of year that you go play."
And maybe that's the question that needs a definitive response: is Texas playing its best basketball right now? The past five games have been a rollercoaster ride. The peaks have been those two resounding wins over Kansas (80-55) and Oklahoma (72-48); the valleys include the 21-point loss at Oklahoma State and the 46-43 setback at Texas A&M that re-defined 'ugly.'
"We finished the season strong with the OU game," said forward P.J. Tucker, "but the (Big 12) Tournament is real big for us. It was one of the things that we put on the board at the beginning of the year that we wanted to accomplish. We've never won one and we want to win it."
Texas reached the Big 12 Tournament Championship in 2001 and 2004 and has a 9-9 record in the 10-year history of the event. A depleted Longhorn team mailed-in a lackluster performance in last year's tourney, falling in the First Round to 11th seed Colorado, 81-69.
The Horns have easily dispatched of Texas Tech (15-16) in both regular season games, 80-46 in Austin and 65-44 in Lubbock. A Texas win on Friday would mean that Raider coach Bobby Knight would suffer his first losing season since his 1970-71 Army team went 11-13. Jarius Jackson has carried Tech on his shoulders this season and finished the year as the Big 12 scoring leader by averaging 20.3 ppg.
The prevailing sentiment this weekend is that the only Big 12 Tournament game that has any sort of significant post-season implications is the Colorado/Texas A&M matchup slated for Friday afternoon. If the seeds hold, Texas would face the Aggies at 1 p.m., Saturday, with a chance to exact a little payback for that buzzer-beating loss in College Station on March 1. While the win elevated A&M to the status of an NCAA 'bubble team', the Horns would like nothing more than to book passage back to Dallas next weekend for the First and Second Round of the NCAAs. The so-called neutral site would duplicate the home court advantage that Texas enjoyed at San Antonio during the 2003 South Regional.
In fact, Barnes dusted off the game film from Texas' 82-78 win over Connecticut that year and showed it to his current troops this week.
"We all know what's at stake this time of year," Barnes said. "The mindset has got to be we've got to go after this thing."
The trip down memory lane was intended primarily to reinforce the "mindset" required for a run deep into the Tourney.
"It was to show what it takes to get to the Final Four," Buckman told Inside Texas. It showed how hard we ran in each play, how fast we had to move and how much it took to get a basket. We sometimes missed shots but we all, as a team, tried to get the rebound. We all covered each other's back. It showed how intense this game is when it comes down to the Tournament."