College Basketball Bubble Watch

Updated: February 24, 2015, 2:11 PM ET
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com


Texas' free fall defies easy explanation

Texas fans, know this: You're not alone. Johnny Dawkins feels your pain.

Almost two months ago to the day, an unranked Stanford team went to Austin and left with a 74-71 win over the No. 9 team in the country. The Cardinal were widely and rightfully praised. Here was a tough, true road win in nonconference play, a bona fide victory against a legitimate Final Four contender. Texas had lost its starting sophomore guard, Isaiah Taylor, to a November injury and barely worked in uber-talented freshman Myles Turner, and it had still given Kentucky a game at Rupp Arena a few weeks prior to the Cardinal's visit. It had already manhandled Iowa and Cal and held on for a win at Connecticut. Two months ago, beating that team on its own floor was a ticket-punching tentpole. Now? Not so much.

Between then and now, no 2014-15 team has fallen further than Texas. The Longhorns -- the same Longhorns who went toe-to-toe with still-unbeaten Kentucky -- are now 17-10 overall, 6-8 in the Big 12, 1-9 against the RPI top 50 and 5-10 against the top 100. If that sounds like the résumé of a bubble team, well, that's because it is.

So what happened? Where does Texas stand right now? And where does Texas go from here?

Answering the first question requires moderation. Fine, let's just say it: Rick Barnes has not done a particularly good job with this team. There are plenty of specific examples (see: the easy, high-ball screen Oklahoma State used to get Phil Forte on the line in a Feb. 4 loss, 65-63 in overtime), but they're less important than the big picture, which is that this talented Longhorns team too often appears disjointed and even lost. Worse, most of the Longhorns haven't improved. After returning from injury, Taylor has been essentially the same (good, not great) player he was as a freshman. Jonathan Holmes, who ended November on every award watchlist, has gradually faded to the background. Cameron Ridley has been less effective in fewer minutes. Even Turner -- a legitimate NBA prospect posting quality efficiency numbers -- has been inconsistent at best against top competition.

It's hardly that simple, though. Texas hasn't been great, but it hasn't been terrible, either. The Longhorns allow the lowest 2-point field goal percentage of any team in the country, including Kentucky. They block a higher percentage of opponents' shots than any team in the country, including Kentucky. They have the highest defensive rebounding rate in the Big 12 and the ninth-highest offensive rate in college hoops. This is a team that uses it size to its advantage, protecting the rim on defense and crashing the glass on offense. It would be unfair to ignore all of that -- and that the Longhorns lost by three at Iowa State and by two at Oklahoma -- when considering their current predicament. If those two games end with a bucket in the other direction, UT is 19-8 and 8-6 in league play, and we're not even broaching this conversation. That matters.

So does this: Maybe Texas was never as good as its nonconference performance suggested. UConn certainly isn't. Neither is Iowa. Neither is Cal. Meanwhile, it's worth noting just how brutal this edition of the Big 12 is. Playing good teams is hard enough; playing this many, with no respite between them, is especially so.

All of which is why the Longhorns, despite five of their six Big 12 wins coming against TCU, Kansas State, and Texas Tech, aren't quite dead yet. There are no bad losses on their résumé, and the committee notices good performances in close losses. If the field were seeded today, Texas would get in, and it probably wouldn't be close.

There is, of course, still some season left. On Tuesday night, Texas travels to West Virginia, whose defeat in Austin gave UT its lone top-50 win of the season. Another loss -- understandable as it might be in isolation -- will be received as a disaster. On Saturday, UT travels to Kansas. Good luck with that.

Whatever the committee believes about Texas's talent or the Big 12 slaughterhouse or the extenuating circumstances of narrow losses, it won't ignore a team in free fall. Texas might not be on the bubble the way, say, UCLA is on the bubble. But the Longhorns are already close enough to have turned this once-promising season into a snickering tale of collapse. They've made Tuesday night's trip to Morgantown nothing less than a must-win. A lot can happen in two months.

Did we miss a team? Include the unworthy? Want to stump for your favored mid-major? Send your feedback, suggestions and hilarious jokes to me on Twitter @eamonnbrennan

Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through Feb. 23.