Tourney hopes alive for young Horns

Time to make this as simple as possible:

Texas has 10 wins. Another nine, meaning a 9-9 record in the Big 12, and Texas almost certainly will get to the NCAA Tournament. Eight wins? Well, maybe if the first round of the Big 12 tournament is a laugher.

Now for the complicated part: Getting those nine wins.

The Big 12, which opens conference play this week, currently boasts two 13-0 teams, four teams in the Top 25, seven teams with double digit wins, and no team with a losing record.

"It is a pleasant surprise to me how good everybody is," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "You look at Kansas State and they have one loss, and that could have gone either way. Missouri and Baylor have won away from home and big games. Those three to me stand out ahead of everybody else.

"Look at Oklahoma and how much they have improved. We know A&M is good, and we're OK. It's maybe the best it has ever been top to bottom."

As for the team Self didn't mention, there are reasons the Longhorns are not quite on anyone's radar yet. The most unavoidable is youth. Five freshmen play consistently and are the top stat getters behind junior J'Covan Brown.

While they have talent, they also have issues.

"Young guys make it more complicated than it has to be," Texas coach Rick Barnes said.

North Carolina State, a head-slapping loss in which Texas blew an 18-point lead in the final 8:16, was evidence to that. Truly that game, the wins against UCLA and Temple, another neutral site loss against Oregon State and the road loss to North Carolina, are more indicative of the types of games Texas will see in the Big 12. Not the eight other wins against the likes of Nicholls State.

That is what should give Texas fans some pause before checking out where the first-round sites are in the NCAA tournament.

On the flip side, youth eventually does mature, and the players understand that.

"We still have things to grow on," said Brown, the team's leading scorer with 19.3 per game. "We got to do those little things."

That was clear during the blowout loss at North Carolina.

"We grew up fast after the Carolina game," freshman Sheldon McClellan said. "Practice was brutal. It was crazy. We matured."

Whether they are mature enough to win on the road is the big question surrounding this team. Texas has enough talent to win at home; maybe not against the likes of Kansas or Baylor, but in order to make the NCAA tournament for the 14th straight year, it will have to squeeze a win or two out on the road.

One of the best opportunities comes Wednesday night at Iowa State. The Cyclones are an up-and-down team and coming off a two-point win over Mississippi Valley State that coach Fred Hoiberg labeled embarrassing.

"We're struggling to play through adversity," Hoiberg said "We're pretty good when things go well."

That sounds a lot like Texas.

"We're trying to make progress, but we can't be backsliding either," Barnes said.

Lately, it has been the transition defense that has let Texas down. That's not the only thing Barnes has noticed.

"We've gotten a little bit better with what we want to do offensively but not to the point where I feel good about it," he said. "Defensively we have more guys understanding what we want to be doing."

But, he added, not enough guys. And not consistently.

Consistency is what conference play dictates, particularly this year, as each team plays a home and home with every conference opponent with no weeks off. That is what worries Barnes more than Texas being able to stack up with other teams from a talent perspective.

"On any given night, if we do what we're capable of, we can play with any basketball team, if we are willing to fight and be feisty out there," he said.

Just feisty enough if Texas wants to continue to play into the middle of March.

Carter Strickland covers University of Texas sports and recruiting for HornsNation

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