"Any time you can win a conference championship it's a great accomplishment," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "If you play 16 games and can come out on top, it's a great accomplishment for your team. Our guys understand how hard they've had to play up to this point to put themselves in this position, but they also understand the game Sunday is not going to be easy. They understand they have to make the effort, both mentally and physically to get it done."
The Horns are attempting to claim their second Big 12 title in the past three years and their third during Barnes' first decade in Austin. In addition, a win Sunday would set a new school record for most regular season wins. Texas currently sits at 25-5, 12-3 in league action. The 25-win plateau, tied with two other Texas teams for the best 30-game mark in school history, bodes well for Barnes' bunch: the 2005-06 Longhorns advanced to the 'Elite Eight' while Abe Lemons' 1977-78 won the NIT Championship (back when that Tournament actually meant something).
The current herd of Horns are trying to parlay a conference title with wins over three teams currently ranked in the Top Six (UCLA, Tennessee, Kansas) into no worse than a No. 2 NCAA seed and, ideally, a spot in the Houston Regional. Texas currently boasts a No. 5 RPI.
"We tell our team, after every game, if you do what you're supposed to do, you have a chance to win every game," Barnes said. "But, if you don't, you could lose every game. We've been fortunate that we've had a really good group of guys that have come through here that want to be coached and are willing to be part of a team."
Yet, it's a Texas team, ranked No. 9 in both national polls, that has struggled the two past outings after reeling off eight straight. The 83-80 setback at Texas Tech on March 1 may have cost Texas a No. 1 in the Big Dance; the Horns then hung on against Nebraska Wednesday, 70-66, after building a 14-point lead. Did Texas peak too soon?
For Barnes, it has more to do with Texas extending its "physical and mental focus" for at least five or six more possessions per outing.
"We've got to make those up some way," Barnes said. "We bogged down (against Nebraska) on offense, and that put a lot of pressure on our defense. Nebraska had something to do with that. It was hard-fought grinder. We can pretty much expect that from here on out."
Longhorn seniors J.D. Lewis and Ian Mooney will be recognized in a brief pre-game ceremony, 2:45 p.m.. Tip-off is set for 3:00 p.m. (Central) in an ESPN national telecast.
ABOUT OKIE STATE
Texas completed the month of February with an 8-0 mark, the program's first unblemished February since the 1962-63 season. Yet, Oklahoma State (16-13, 7-8) is the other Big 12 team that "flipped the switch" last month, Barnes said. The Cowboys had won five straight, including an upset of Kansas, before dropping a road game Wednesday at Oklahoma. The difference may be attributed to the fact Byron Eaton has hit his stride from three-point range.
"The one thing you notice about him is his three-point percentage has gone way up," Barnes noted. "It went from down in the low 30s to around 44 percent, and that makes a huge difference (during that span). But they've all gotten better as individuals."
Eaton, on a personal crusade to save coach Sean Sutton's job, has converted 31-of-78 treys (39.7 percent) through 29 games. On the season, OSU is knocking down 35.4 percent of its three-balls.
The Cowboys average 69.4 ppg with nearly all five starters averaging in double figures. Freshman James Anderson is his team's leading scorer with 13.6 ppg. The Cowboys have stepped it up defensively during their recent winning streak but their Achilles Heel has been rebounding. OSU is -1.5 on the season in rebounding margin while its leading rebounder is Marcus Dove, good for just 5.6 boards-per-game.
Texas leads the all-team series, dating back to 1918, by a 37-34 margin. Barnes is 14-10 against the Cowboys after his club nipped OSU, 63-61, in Stillwater on January 21. Texas has also won 11 of its last 13 contests against the Pokes in Austin.
The Big 12 Conference Tournament begins Wednesday in Kansas City. The top four seeds (Texas, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma) receive a first-round bye and tip-off Thursday.