It’s not too soon to say it: Texas is back.
After a couple of down years in men’s basketball, Rick Barnes’ bunch is back to looking like the Barnes bunches of old, ever a threat to do some damage in the NCAA tournament.
The Longhorns have won seven consecutive Big 12 games and four consecutive against ranked teams, including a convincing 81-69 home victory over Kansas last Saturday — stifling the conference’s best offense and beating the Jayhawks at their own game by controlling the paint.
“Certainly Rick has a very good team this year, and they exposed us in a big way on Saturday,” Bill Self told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram then, renewing the intrigue in an old rivalry.
Understandably, poll voters rewarded the big victory by bumping Texas from 25th in the national rankings — where the Longhorns had entered the top 25 at a week before — up to 15th in the country.
But who could have seen this coming? A year ago, the youthful Longhorns had by far the worst season of Barnes’ tenure, going 16-18 and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. Hardly a conversation could be brought up about Texas without questioning the future of its coach.
Then, what would have been much-coveted experience sort of evaporated. Point guard Myck Kabongo, as expected, left for the NBA draft. But the Longhorns also lost three others to transfers, and Ioannis Papapetrou left to play professionally in his native Greece. Suddenly Texas was extremely young all over again with only one junior and no seniors in the rotation, with talent that was believed to be a far cry from the days where Barnes had players such as Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge.
No matter, the Longhorns have made it work, growing up quickly and staying resilient throughout a tough schedule; three of their four losses have been to ranked teams. While Texas still struggles to score at times, it has made up for it with a stellar defense that has ranked among the best in the nation. Cameron Ridley has been efficient under the basket — he and Jonathan Holmes helping Texas to become the fourth-best shot-blocking team in the country — while Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland have been apt in the backcourt.
Slowly but surely, the Longhorns, who pulled out a narrow win at Texas Christian on Tuesday without an injured Felix, have worked themselves back into the national conversation.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Holmes told Sports Illustrated.
The Longhorns have plenty of tests ahead, including games against Kansas State and Oklahoma State in the next four days. But Texas is playing as well as any team is right now, and should be competing for a top-three finish in the Big 12.
And it only seems the Longhorns are getting better.
College basketball short takes
There has been plenty of chatter about Kansas big man Tarik Black potentially playing at the next level. But which sport, exactly? Apparently that is up for debate.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently told Bill Self that Black would have a tryout with the Packers, the Kansas coach said on his weekly radio show, according to KUsports.com.
“He said, ‘I want to try that guy at tight end,’ ” Self said of Black. “I said, ‘Tight end? He can’t go across the middle and get hit.’ But then I started thinking about it ... they [NFL teams] love to have basketball players. He [Rodgers] said, ‘I want to throw balls at him and see what he can do.’ Certainly [Black] is a phenomenal athlete for his size.”
• John Gasaway points out in his weekly “Tuesday Truths” that the difference in Wisconsin’s recent slump has been “all about threes.” Going into Tuesday’s game at Illinois, the Badgers had lost five of six games, and they had allowed opponents to shoot 39 percent of their attempts from three-point range in that stretch, while managing only 28 percent themselves. Wisconsin connected on 10 of 23 three-pointers in its tromping of Illinois, however, so maybe the Badgers are back on track heading into their home game against Michigan State on Sunday.
• The Gophers’ Saturday opponent, Indiana, features 6-10 freshman Noah Vonleh as the most efficient player on a team that is lackluster offensively at times.
But Inside the Hall’s Seth Hendrickson pointed out that the Hoosiers struggle to get the ball in the forward’s hands for long stretches. Hendrickson breaks down Vonleh’s usage (when a player registers a field-goal attempt, free-throw attempt or turnover) in every possession, noticing that Indiana essentially goes to him less and less as the game goes on. Not only that, but over the course of the season, the Hoosiers have only gotten worse at targeting Vonleh, Hendrickson shows. That’s not a recipe for success.
• ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan pointed out this nugget: The current top nine teams in the AP poll — Syracuse (ACC), Arizona (Pac-12), Florida (SEC), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), San Diego State (West Coast), Villanova (Big East), Cincinnati (American Athletic), Kansas (Big 12) and Michigan State (Big Ten) — all come from different conferences. It’s the first time that has happened since Jan. 31, 1984.
Big Ten power rankings
1.Michigan State: The Spartans had a Februray nonconference loss to Georgetown, but in terms of Big Ten play, Michigan State’s is track record is the most impressive.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines took their first lump at Indiana on Sunday, but they rebounded by routing Nebraska by 29.
Iowa: By failing to lock down the big victories, the Hawkeyes opening a window for another team to make a charge.
3. Indiana: The Hoosiers are starting to grow up, and after beating Michigan they seem like they have the potential to get scary.
4. Northwestern: No team has had a better two-game stretch than the Wildcats’ road victories over the Badgers and the Gophers.
5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes followed their 2-4 stretch by winning at Wisconsin and Iowa. Talk about a rebound.
6. Wisconsin: Their three-point shooting returned in their much-needed victory at Illinois. Can the Badgers make it a trend?
7. Minnesota: Until the Gophers show they can win a game on the road, there will be an asterisk on their good victories.
8. Penn State: Plenty respectable to lose at Michigan State to end the Nittany Lions’ three-game winning streak.
9. Nebraska: Beating Ohio State, Minnesota and Indiana says something about where the Cornhuskers program is headed.
10. Purdue: The Boilermakers beat the Gophers despite going 9-for-23 on free throws.
Illinois: Life is not good when you’re on an eight game losing streak.