With only one non-conference game remaining on December 30th against the Rice Owls, the Texas Longhorns have surprised nearly everyone going 10-2 through their first 12 games. Rick Barnes’ squad has played with a high level of intensity, teamwork, and heart, all of which were not hallmarks of a 2012 team that struggled mightily and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
The Longhorns hit a bump in the road yesterday afternoon in Austin with a 92-78 loss to a better Michigan State Spartans team who will be in the mix deep into the 2014 NCAA Tournament, but offset this loss with a valuable win over the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill earlier in the week, a win that will have a nice impact on the team’s RPI when it matters most next spring.
The Big 12 Conference will be as deep as it’s ever been this season. All 10 teams will enter the conference slate following the holidays with a winning record and a combined overall conference record of 87-22. Regardless of who the teams within the conference played in the early-season slate, that’s an impressive mark. There won’t be an easy game on any Saturday afternoon or Monday evening this winter for the Big 12 members, but there is no reason to think Texas can’t be a part of the mix.
Rick Barnes’ 2012 squad was littered with guys with an individual focus who would implode when the going got tough making things even worse for a team that was obviously lacking in chemistry. This year’s team appears to be the diametrical opposite. Led by true freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor and an improved and more aggressive sophomore center Cam Ridley, Texas has a new swagger which belies their lack of individual talent.
When asked about the Longhorns following Michigan State’s win yesterday in Austin, legendary Spartans head coach Tom Izzo had the following to say:
I love this team’s chemistry. I love the [Isaiah] Taylor kid. I just think they’re more together. I went through it myself. You have superstars that don’t buy in or looking for other things. I’ve been there too. I’ve been there and won, and been there and lost. I thought for the most part that his guys are playing so hard. When we got a little bit up on them, Payne was unbelievable and that was the difference of the game, otherwise I think it would have gone right down to the wire.
If a legend like Izzo can recognize the difference in effort level, the difference in a team rather than a collection of individuals, it’s an extremely positive sign for Texas.
Now, the next steps for Texas are two-fold:
1. Figure out how to play a full 40 minutes without any mental lapses against high competition, which will be their every night reality in the Big 12.
2. Get big games out of their bigger names night in and night out. This team belongs to Isaiah Taylor and Cam Ridley. They can’t take nights off or struggle at any point. If their consistency becomes commonplace, Texas could surprise many in the Big 12.
Texas hoops fans have plenty to be optimistic about during the rest of this season. It’s a huge surprise that this may be the team that saves Rick Barnes’ job, but in fact, they just might be.
Kris Hughes is a Senior Writer, Business Analyst and College Content Coordinator for Rant Sports.