Throughout November, December and January, there was always that sneaking suspicion, that voice in the back of your head: Could Texas, like last year's baffling team, still fall apart?
I thought we were well past that point. After all, the Longhorns weren't just beating their Big 12 foes: They were, thanks to an historically stifling defense, pulverizing them. Texas won its first 11 Big 12 games by an average of 16.4 points. The only team to hold them to single digits in that span was Baylor, which lost 69-60 in Austin, and the stretch also included a thoroughly impressive 11-point win in Lawrence, Kan.
As of Feb. 16, this team looked like a No. 1 seed. Heck, it looked like the best team in the country. With a defense this good, there was no chance the Longhorns could fall apart, right?
In the immortal words of Charlie Murphy: Wrong. Wrong.
After last night's home loss to the surging Kansas State Wildcats, Texas is at sudden risk of repeating last year's dramatic conference collapse, only later in the season and in even more unexpected fashion. Last year's No. 1-ranked Horns started to dissolve early in conference play, early enough to eventually slip all the way to a 9-7 record in the Big 12 and a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament. This year's slide -- if this is truly a slide -- won't be nearly as precipitous if only because the Longhorns don't have enough time left in the season to fall below, say, a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. But considering how well this team played deep into February, it might be just as dramatic.
So: Are the Longhorns really sliding? Does losing three out of four, two of which came on the road to desperate bubble teams, and one at home to a suddenly swag-tastic Kansas State bunch, really constitute a slide?
This much is for sure: In those three losses, Texas's defense has gone missing. From Basketball Prospectus's John Gasaway:
Just a few short days ago the Longhorns were on-track to have by far the best defense that any major-conference team has shown us in recent years. But in losses to Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas State (hardly a murderers' row of offenses, by the way) the Horns have allowed 1.17 points per trip. What in the world happened? The other teams' shots, finally, started to fall. In those three losses opponents have made 55 percent of their twos and 38 percent of their threes. Last night in K-State's 75-70 win in Austin, Rodney McGruder and Curtis Kelly shot a combined 14-of-24 for the Wildcats. Two weeks ago the very idea of posting such numbers against this defense would have been outlandish. Lastly Texas is simply fouling more often. This is more than a defense simply coming back to the pack. It's a defense coming apart at the seams.
It hasn't helped that Jordan Hamilton and the rest of Texas's offense has disappeared, too. Hamilton, once a player of the year candidate, is 15-of-58 in the losses to Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas State. The rest of the Longhorns haven't been much better. Still, Texas has averaged 1.12 points per possession in the three losses, and besides, Texas' offense has never been its key feature this season. That feature is -- or at least was -- its defense. You don't need tempo-free stats to realize that giving up 58 points in the second half to Colorado is a good sign your defense isn't playing very well.
Where do the Longhorns go from here? Rick Barnes, for his part, doesn't care about the criticism -- familiar thanks to last year's collapse --- that is sure to start swirling around his team's suddenly underwhelming play. From the New York Times's Pete Thamel:
“I would have cared 10 years ago,” he said of critics questioning his 19-18 N.C.A.A. tournament record. “This is not the most important thing in my life. It’s what I do, but it’s not the most important thing in my life.” [...]
“I don’t care,” Barnes said late Tuesday of the criticism. “I’ve been in this so long, I could care less about what other people think. I quit a long time ago worrying about that.”
Hamilton shares his coach's apathy, for lack of a better word, about fans' sudden and understandable hesitancy in picking the Longhorns in their theoretical 2011 NCAA tournament brackets:
“Honestly, I don’t care what nobody thinks as far as trusting Texas or anything like that,” Hamilton said.
So, yes, Texas is struggling. Its head coach is already deflecting meta-questions about his perception. Its star player is defiantly dismissing doubting outsiders. Its defense is disappearing. Its offense can't carry it through.
And still, all is not lost. It's important to keep this in perspective. Sure, Texas has lost three of its past four games. Sure, the Longhorns aren't locking anyone down. But it's only three games. There's nothing inevitable about this, nothing that says Texas has to keep playing worse and worse as the season goes along. It might feel that way. Last year's team never turned it around. But last year's team wasn't ever as good as this one, and you don't dominate for as long as this Texas team did without some serious ability backing you up.
For much of the past year, Barnes and Hamilton have talked about their team's leadership and chemistry, how last year's team was never on the same page, how personalities clashed, and how this year's team would be different. For most of the season, it has been. For the past three games, it has not.
So, no, you can't fault Texas fans for hitting the panic button. They should be. But you can remind them that three games does not a season make. You can remind them that one win is all it takes to right the ship, to unlock the ability that can mysteriously go missing in the midst of a college basketball season. You can remind them, in case they need proof, that the team that beat them last night -- Kansas State -- was in this exact place just two weeks ago.
Nothing in college hoops is ever preordained. Two bad weeks can be a nightmare. Two good ones can be a dream. But the next two weeks are always just around the corner, and those are always the most important.