Texas opened SWC play in Fort Worth, obliterating TCU, 90-41. When a couple of TCU big men released their frustrations with excessive elbows under the rim, Abe took notice. "Sure looks like TCU's going to have a long year. Those two guys are bad enough players, but we still don't know what kind of fighters they are."
After defeating Texas Tech easier than expected, Texas again surprised the experts by hammering Houston in Hofheinz Pavilion, 100-89, breaking the Cougars' 11-game home streak. Krivacs racked up 29 points, Baxter poured in 23, and Branyan—who was shooting at a torrid conference leading pace— contributed 22.
On Branyan, Lemons gave rare praise. "He's a heckuva player. He's like the white buffalo, the rarest of them all."
Johnny Moore then led the home upset over the somewhat tired but third-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks, 75-69, knocking down 10 of 14 shots, grabbing six boards and seven steals, and dishing eight assists. The big win moved Texas to No. 15 in the polls.
Like the football program, basketball would regularly meet severe competition against the Hogs. A couple of years later, following a closely fought contest that featured Arkansas' flimsy fall down tactics whenever his player would drive the lane, Lemons sarcastically observed, "It's awful to see a 6-9, 230-pound guy fall down against a 150-pound guard. He'd sure be a sucker in a fight."
Rice came next for the conference-leading Longhorns, and the Owls used a unique and annoying stall tactic of subbing 99 times in the game, including a mind-blowing 80 times in the second half. Despite the constant distraction, Texas rolled away, 78-64, behind Tyrone Branyan's 21 points and Johnny Moore's 20. Winning the game didn't prevent Lemons from being irritated by Rice's strange strategy. "There can't be a purpose in all of that, no rhyme or reason. It just delays the game. All they need is a few clowns to make it a circus."
Not all the home tilts were easy. A closely fought contest was won over Vinnie Johnson and Baylor because Moore held Vinnie down in the second half and Ron Baxter had 29 points and 11 boards, with the scores coming on assorted drives and jumpers. Those and his excellent defense garnered lavish praise from Baylor coach Jim Haller.
A February 1 showdown at Arkansas loomed as a tremendous test, since Texas would be playing its fifth grueling game in a ten-day span and had several injuries and ailments to show for it. Lamented Lemons after the prior game against Houston, "I said if we got beat tonight (Houston), I'd be sad going to Arkansas. I also said if we won tonight, I'd be sad going to Arkansas." Texas survived the Cougars, 73-72, meaning Abe was still sad.
In contrast, second-ranked Arkansas had had a few days of rest and was filled with revenge after the earlier loss in Austin had given the Hogs their only conference black mark. Eddie Sutton's squad also was defending a 24-game home streak against the No. 12 Longhorns.
Despite the contrast in health between the two teams, Texas didn't shown any early signs of weariness, taking an 11-point lead after scoring eight straight points early in the second half in a raucous Barnhill Arena. But, as Hogs' head coach Eddie Sutton noted, the Arkansas crowd played a big factor in a furious comeback that felled the Longhorns, 75-71. It may also have been that Texas finally ran out of gas. Sutton admitted as much. "The fatigue factor apparently hurt Texas down the stretch." So, too, did play from the Razorbacks' super trio nicknamed the "Triplets," featuring Sidney Moncrief. It was Texas' first conference defeat, putting the ‘Horns and Razorbacks in a dead heat.
Lemons' group rebounded to defeat TCU and Rice. Then, despite a 22-rebound deficit to Texas A&M, Texas unloaded on the Aggies, 90-66, with Jim Krivacs firing in 34 and Johnny Moore generously dealing 16 assists.
Despite Ron Baxter's 17 points and 13 boards, Texas dropped its second SWC game at Baylor, but then came back to handle Texas Tech and SMU to claim the conference co- championship with Arkansas.
While the regular season had surpassed all expectations, the post-season conference tournament proved troublesome. A suddenly hot Houston first upended Arkansas, then held off the hard charging Longhorns, 92-90, to win the SWC tourney. Lemons felt some critical calls went against his team at Houston's Summit, with the end result giving Houston the automatic NCAA bid and Arkansas the at-large. As a result, Texas was left out, unfairly in many eyes.
Abe was less than pleased with the now second-rate NIT acceptance. He deadpanned, "It's been a long, damn year, and I need to be out finding a post man," partly in reference to Gary Goodner's on-court disappearance against Houston in the final. Rebounding and size had been a season-long issue, however. Lemons added, "If you hear of anyone who can jump, please send him to me, and I don't care if he's 3-foot-2."
In early-round NIT action, Texas met Temple and needed Lemons' halftime tongue-lashing after standing around and looking at a 30-23 deficit at intermission. His players took heed, roaring to a 49-point second half and running away, 72-58. Krivacs broke the all-time school season scoring record, and Abe Lemons had his 400th win as a head coach.
The Longhorns never looked back in reaching the finals. Humorous Abe didn't endear himself to everyone in the process. His sharp tongue infuriated a Nebraska regent to the point of wanting to sever all athletic ties to Texas. But Lemons' chief aim, at senior center Gary Goodner, paid off in the normally offense-absent player's 16 points (and seven boards) in the Longhorns' 67-48 quarterfinal pounding of the Huskers.
Lemons, never thrilled with travel, reflected, "I hate road games. Little old ladies hit you with umbrellas and pour stuff on you or some fat slob is yelling at you from behind the bench." New York, site of the old tournament, rankled him even more. "I just came from breakfast and had a couple of eggs that cost $4.95. I asked to see the chicken. Where I come from, I never saw a chicken that could lay eggs worth $4.95. That's more amazing than this game."
In the semifinal, Texas steamrolled Rutgers, 96-76, again on the strength of superior outside shooting and the clutch play of forward Tyrone Branyan's 24 points. Sharpshooter Jim Krivacs led Texas with 25 while small forward Ron Baxter added 19.
The storied Wolfpack program was only four years removed from its first national title, averaged 84 points per game and was bigger at every position than the "stubby" Longhorns.
The thrill that brought them to the final was gone for the Wolfpack, as the racehorse Longhorns kept the pedal to the floor in a 101-93 thrashing that wasn't anywhere near that close.
The UT fastbreak-style offense was so smooth, so polished and powerful that Abe, smoking the victory cigar, stated "I didn't even have to coach that one. I've got smart kids and they know what they have to do…This is the easiest team I've ever coached."
A 17-point halftime lead blew up to 24 in the second half before NC State narrowed the gap. Super shooter Jim Krivacs bombed in 33, while Baxter and Moore added 26 and 22, respectively. Baxter, in adding 12 boards, was named the tournament's co-MVP with teammate Krivacs. Baxter's football-style long passes on fastbreak opportunities caused Lemons to dub them "fly patterns," a term to which football-crazed Longhorn fans could easily relate.
After winning that post-season NIT title, Lemons was named National Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). To this day, Lemons is the only coach in Texas basketball history to earn National Coach of the Year honors.
Texas ended the year 26-5. In addition to Jim Krivacs breaking the school season scoring record (while leading the team with 22 points per game), Johnny Moore set Texas' all-time season assist record with 214 (7 per game), and Ron Baxter piled up averages of 19 points and nine boards per game. It was the first time in school history that two players poured in over 500 points in the same season and contributed heavily to Texas' 84 point scoring average, the best in history at the time. More importantly, the team ran off winning streaks of eight and nine games, and finished unbeaten (15-0) in its new home, the first time that had ever been accomplished by a Longhorn squad. Lemons' 26-win figure was the tops as well, not surpassed until the 2005-'06 season (in six more games).
Amidst controversy and a mid-season nosedive in 1981-'82, Abe Lemons was fired by DeLoss Dodds, Darrell Royal's replacement as athletic director. Abe's acidic wit was on full display, stating he wished he had a glass-bottomed car so that he could "see Dodds' expression when I run him over."
Regardless, Lemons' excellence as a basketball coach, in a career that included 599 wins, couldn't be disputed by anyone. He'd led Longhorn' hoops onto a new plane in a modernized era, one that would be built up to standout levels despite playing second fiddle to "king football." To some degree, Tom Penders and, now, Rick Barnes owe their success to Abe Lemons.