Hoops: Road Gets Tougher For No. 4 Horns

The Texas men’s basketball team (12-2) held on to its No. 4 ranking in both the latest AP and ESPN-USA Top 25 polls released Monday. Staying there, and atop the Big 12 standings, will be a formidable task as the Horns now face three straight nationally ranked squads. It all starts with Saturday’s 3 p.m. tip-off against (No. 21 AP/No. 20) Missouri (ESPN+), followed next week by Kansas (No. 6 in both polls) and Oklahoma State.

A Texas win Saturday would allow UT to equal its longest winning streak during the Rick Barnes era (eight games). Barnes’ bunch has not lost since dropping a 73-70 decision at Arizona on December 8 (the Wildcats regained their preseason spot atop both polls Monday).

A ninth straight win would indeed be an accomplishment, as the Horns face a quick turnaround before facing perennial power Kansas at Allen Field House. The 8 p.m. (CST) tilt for the conference lead is the centerpiece of ESPN’s "Big Monday" telecast on January 27. The Jayhawks host Arizona this Saturday before facing Texas.

"I really and truly believe that Arizona and Kansas are playing as well as anybody in the country," Barnes said. "I’m not sure they’re not the top two teams in country. Oklahoma State is a better team than maybe even they thought they would be. They’re a much improved team from a year ago."

After winning ten of its first 11 games, Missouri lost consecutive road games to nationally ranked teams (Syracuse, Oklahoma State). The Tigers will try to rebound at home Tuesday against Iowa State before squaring off with Texas. The Tigers have reinstated point guard Ricky Clemmons, charged last week with ‘second degree domestic violence.’ The junior, who allegedly choked his girlfriend, sat out last Saturday’s loss to the Cowboys.

Clemmons is considered one of the top six or seven point guards in the country, but certainly no better than second-best in the Big 12. Come Monday up in the Midwest, sensational sophomore point guard T.J. Ford will have the chance to show the nation that he’s the one with the ‘basketball Jones' in this league.

The hardwood magician, known more for his slight-of-hand last season in becoming the first freshman to lead the NCAA in assists (8.3 apg), is doing what Barnes said he needed to do in taking the ball to the hole himself. Ford averaged 21.5 ppg while hitting 17-of-29 field goals (.586) and 9-of-9 free throws (1.000), while adding an average of five assists and four steals in UT's two wins last week against Texas A&M and Baylor. Ford registered a career-best 25 points in the 89-61 thumping of the Aggies Saturday.

Oklahoma State, which travels to Austin February 1 (3:00 p.m., ESPN+), now holds the nation’s longest current winning streak at 12 games. The Cowboys 48-46 win over Oklahoma was its second win over a top-10 team this season (64-61 vs. then-No. 9 Michigan State on Nov. 30).

Oklahoma (11-3) is the fifth conference ranked this week, checking in at No. 5 in the coaches poll and at No. 7 in the AP. Texas hosts the Sooners in another Big Monday affair (February 10) before traveling to Norman in a made-for-television regular season finale, March 8.

"You don’t want to use clichés but you take it one game at a time," Barnes said Monday. "We have a number of upperclassmen who have been through it, and know that you can’t let down. As big of a game as people think Kansas is, I think out next game is our biggest game, and our players think so, too."

The Longhorns are also posting Ws because of their patented Velcro defense, limiting nine of their first 14 opponents this season below 40% FG shooting. (Although Barnes said Texas will use part of its open week to work on what he considered to be some defensive shortcomings against A&M.)

Texas is also shooting the ball better (as Barnes said it would) in league play after the head coach experimented with rotations during the pre-league schedule. After converting 43.9% of its FG attempts and 33.2% of its three-point tries in its 11 non-conference contests, the Horns are averaging 80.3 ppg while hitting 50.3% (92-of-183) from the field in their first three league games.

"I know that the teams in our league have always gotten better as the season goes on," Barnes said. "This league has got good players and experienced coaches who understand that there’s a long time between now and the conference tournament, and that you’ve got to improve every day."

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