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Saddle Up: Is this Texas' time?

2/20/2012

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best college hoops action. It listened to this all afternoon. It recommends you do the same.

No. 14 Baylor at Texas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Texas is one of the strangest teams of the 2011-12 season. Why? Because the Longhorns aren't nearly as bad as their record would suggest. If you look at efficiency rankings like Ken Pomeroy's (and if you're a regular reader, I bet you do) you know this already: Texas has spent much of the season in KenPom's top 25 thanks primarily to an offense ranked No. 16 in the country. Pick an advanced metric, any advanced metric: BPI has the Longhorns at No. 22, too. LRMC lists them at No. 28. You get the idea.

So why, if this team is one of the best 25 in the country on a per-possession basis, are the Longhorns just 17-10 overall, 7-7 in the Big 12 and sitting squarely on the bubble (they're one of Joe Lunardi's last four in) as of Monday? Why should a team that just gave up 56 free throws -- 56! -- to Oklahoma State be afforded the benefit of the doubt? Fortunately, Mr. Pomeroy explained as much for Insider this afternoon:

The Longhorns arrived in their present circumstance the way most teams do. They don't have a lot of quality wins despite being consistently competitive against very good opponents. You could make a case that their best win of the season was a December victory at UCLA. They have home wins against Big 12 opponents Kansas State and Iowa State, which are nice, but, when those are a team's flagship victories, that team is not going to impress the crowd that uses quality wins to judge the strength of a team. But the truth is, Texas might be stronger than it appears and capable of some noteworthy wins in the latter stages of this season.

Texas is the kind of team you can't understand until you look at its losses. The Longhorns' chances at home against Kansas and Missouri came down to the last possession. Road games against Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State weren't decided until the final minute. We might think of Texas differently had things gone slightly different in the final minute or two of any of those games, but especially the three-point loss to Kansas and a one-point loss to Missouri.

This is how good teams get overlooked, and why tempo-free metrics are so valuable -- it's never enough to merely judge a team by its wins and losses. There are thousands of data points and miles of gray area in between.

Then again, the NCAA tournament selection committee does judge a team by its wins and losses. (And its opponents' wins and losses, and its opponents' opponents' wins and losses, and OK, OK, I'm not going to rant about the RPI anymore. Sorry.) The point is, you can't show up to Selection Sunday with a record like Texas' and say, but wait, look at our efficiency numbers! We're a lot better than our record! We just didn't win any of those close games! That's a nice argument, but tourney worthiness should, at least in part, be about your ability to win games, including -- even especially -- the close ones. In short: At some point, you've got to win the game. That's what matters.

Which is why this fixture is a little like Texas itself. At first glance, it doesn't look like much. Dig a little deeper, and it's much better than you think.

In fact, this is the best opportunity the Longhorns have to impress the committee the rest of the way. A win at Texas Tech won't do it, nor will a victory against Oklahoma, and even the most ardent Texas fan would have to admit that the chances of this team beating Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse on March 3 are almost zero. No, this is the night -- the night when Texas gets a crack at a team with a fantastic résumé and topflight RPI, but one that is also coming off a bad home defeat, one with a suddenly suspect defense, one that has lost three of its past four, one that has a habit of getting stuck in close games with seemingly inferior opponents (Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, the list goes on) on the road. Texas' timing couldn't be better. The stars, as they say, have aligned.

Now all the Longhorns have to do is win.

Connecticut at Villanova, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: UConn-Villanova on Big Monday -- this is supposed to be a great game. Instead, it's an afterthought. I want the old Big East back.

In any case, despite the lackluster opponent, this is a huge game for Connecticut. First, a bit of trivia: Per ESPN Stats amp; Information, if UConn (6-8 in the Big East to date) loses, it will have three straight seasons with a non-winning Big East record for just the second time ever under head coach Jim Calhoun, and the first time since Calhoun’s first three seasons at UConn (1986-89). That stat, meaningful though it might be to UConn's fans, doesn't matter much. After all, one of those seasons was last season, and UConn won the national title. A 9-9 Big East record is the least of this team's concerns. The Huskies were outclassed and outworked by Marquette on Saturday, and after the game, guard Shabazz Napier rightfully questioned his teammates' heart. Frankly, you couldn't watch UConn play Saturday -- or really any time in the past month, i.e. the blowout at Louisville -- and not wonder much the same. For whatever reason, this team doesn't appear to have much fight. It's disjointed and reeling and falling far below its promise, which is the most disappointing part of all. A road loss against an 11-15 Villanova outfit -- which just took Notre Dame to the wire Saturday -- would be yet another indication that this team, for all its talent, is missing at least one vital ingredient: heart.

Without it, this team is less a team than a carefully arranged collection of individual talents. If UConn doesn't discover something quickly, it won't matter whether it hangs on to make the tournament or not. This season will already be over.