Longhorns see March as a fresh start

Put a fork in 'em.

Headed to the Big 12 championship in Kansas City next week, the mysteriously inept Texas Longhorns are expected DOA.

Hold the sympathy cards.

"You don't feel sorry for teams that are capable of beating your butt every time they lace them up and play, and they are very capable of doing that," Kansas coach Bill Self said.

What else would you expect him to say? Still, it does beg the question: Can Texas, ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history in mid-January, rise from the dead in March?

"It's not too late," insists Texas center Dexter Pittman, one of a myriad of disappointments during the Longhorns' historic slide down the rankings. "People say it's too late, but it's not."

Saturday's regular-season finale at No. 22 Baylor (23-6, 10-5 Big 12) says it all about No. 25 Texas' long, strange season. It's the Bears who have already defeated Texas in Austin, who enter the game ranked higher in the polls (Texas dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday) and boast a more direct route to a first-round bye in K.C. -- win and in.

Who could have predicted that? Not the Big 12 coaches who collectively picked the Bears to finish 10th in the conference. Meanwhile, the Longhorns, once Final Four favorites, are 30 games into the season and still trying to figure out what they are.

Yet, as bad as it's been, a win Saturday and Texas (23-7, 9-6) will still emerge from the rubble with 10 conference wins and potentially a first-round bye. (If Texas A&M loses at Oklahoma, Texas would hold the tiebreaker over Baylor and A&M for the No. 4 seed). But ask Texas coach Rick Barnes to gauge his team's confidence level heading into Saturday's game, let alone the postseason, and he can't tell you.

"I'd really be guessing if I did. Going into every game, I think that they've have the right mindset and when I watch some of the things happen I'm surprised where it comes from," Barnes said. "I don't understand it, because I think we've got a group of guys, you would think with the way they have prepared that they would have things down. But when we do some things during the game it makes me wonder, and I don't know how I can answer that."

The litany of Texas transgressions reads like a laundry list of how to lose basketball games: turnovers; awful free throw shooting; porous defense; stagnant offense; disappearing big man; freshman ills.

A roster that seemed to be an embarrassment of riches to start the season and then rattled off 17 consecutive victories -- including wins over North Carolina and Michigan State in the span of four days -- morphed into a lineup of mismatched and dysfunctional parts.

"We got away from playing as a team, everybody trying to do individual stuff," said freshman guard J'Covan Brown, another disappointment this season. "We have to focus on playing as a team."

Barnes had hoped to start Brown and fellow freshmen guard Avery Bradley and swingman Jordan Hamilton with seniors Damion James and Pittman. Bradley has proved the most consistent, with Brown and Hamilton slow to accept responsibility at both ends of the floor.

When Barnes chose to use his all-freshman backcourt, Texas suffered defensively. When Barnes went to senior Justin Mason and Dogus Balbay (now out for the season with a knee injury), two low-scoring guards, Texas' offense stagnated as defenses treated it as a 3-on-5 situation and sagged inside, further taking Pittman out of the offense.

"The reason we couldn't play those younger guys more, we knew we wanted to play those guys more, but they weren't ready because they didn't understand what they needed to do or the urgency to sustain efforts on both ends," Barnes said. "So it's been a year where, because we've had to do so much tweaking along the way with different guys on the floor offensively for various reasons, that's been the hardest part."

The hope now is that with Brown forced into action with Balbay now sidelined, the Texas offense will fall into a comfort zone. It certainly didn't appear that way in last Saturday's ugly loss at Texas A&M or in Monday's comeback win against a depleted Oklahoma team.

The facts are stark. Texas is just the fourth team to hold the No. 1 ranking and fall out of the poll, and the first since Alabama in 2002-03. Since being 17-0, the Longhorns are 6-7. They have not knocked off a ranked team since the Spartans on Dec. 22.

Who would have figured Baylor would give Texas its next shot in the regular-season finale?

"We need to take care of business against Baylor, take care of the details, and who knows what can happen?" Pittman said. "If you're going to play hard, you're going to be rewarded."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.