While Kansas has made a shambles of the Big 12 race and solidified its status as the team to beat for this year's national championship, the jumble of teams behind the Jayhawks still have plenty to play for. A pivotal match takes place tonight in Columbia, Mo., where slumping Texas takes on a Missouri squad whose tournament status has grown murky.
Texas began the season as the third-ranked team by the Associated Press, and then raced out to 17 straight wins to begin the season. The Longhorns enjoyed back-to-back weeks atop the AP poll on Jan. 11 and 18. After that, Texas lost five of seven, a stretch which included a decisive home loss to Kansas in a contest that had once been pointed to as the potential game of the year. Texas got a much-needed respite from a rugged midstretch of its conference schedule on Saturday as Nebraska made the trip down to Austin. In terms of talent versus talent, it was a bit like Marlon Brando against Kevin Costner. Texas cruised to a 91-51 win, snapping a two-game skid.
Before that, the Longhorns suffered through a tough stretch that saw road losses to Kansas State, Connecticut and Oklahoma, along with home defeats to Kansas and Baylor. Looking ahead, Texas has just two more home games, against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The four road games, beginning tonight, are Missouri, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor. There's not a gimme in the bunch. If things go badly for the Longhorns, an 8-8 or even 7-9 Big 12 mark isn't out of the question.
What's messed up Texas? In short, the super-athletic Longhorns can't shoot. In conference play, Texas is 12th in three-point attempts. So fine, they're an inside-oriented team, right? Well, Texas has shot just 46.4 percent on two-point shots in the Big 12, which is a middling figure, but too low to support such a low frequency of three-point shots. Overall, Texas is 51.8 percent on two-pointers, so the drop-off has been significant.
Here's the kicker: Texas is second in conference play in three-point percentage. So Texas just needs to crank up more three-point shots, right? Chances are, that wouldn't be a good idea, as its Big 12-worst free throw percentage indicates a squad that lacks overall shooting touch. The solid three-point success rate is probably as much due to selectivity as it is proficiency.
Overall, Texas' Offensive Rating ranks third in Big 12 play thanks to offensive rebounding and a league-low turnover rate. That hasn't been good enough against the better teams on Texas' schedule. The Longhorns have lost five of the 10 games in which they've posted an eFG% of under .500.
Leading the inconsistency has been Texas' star freshmen, J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton. Combined, the pair take over half of the Longhorns' shots when they're on the floor together, but Brown has a .422 eFG% and Hamilton is at .483. Brown's minutes have been up and down lately, while fellow freshman Avery Bradley has taken on a larger role. Bradley scored 25 points on 12 shots against Nebraska.
Texas' task of re-gaining its offensive mojo won't get any easier tonight when the 'Horns take on Mizzou. The Tigers have been quietly solid for most of this season, consistently ranking in Pomeroy's top 15 despite not cracking the traditional polls. The Tigers are ninth nationally in Defensive Rating, 29th in eFG% allowed and Mike Anderson's pressure defense has posted the country's second best rate of forced turnovers.
For most of the season, Mizzou has been penciled in as a six or seven seed for the NCAAs, however Tiger fans already putting on their March dancing shoes need to hold off. A disheartening two-point loss at Baylor last Saturday not only was MU's fourth loss in eight games, but it was a missed opportunity to add a much-needed quality road win to the resume.
Currently, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Missouri as one of seven teams from the Big 12 slotted in the NCAA Tournament. Missouri's best win this season was a narrow home win against Kansas State on Jan. 9. The Tigers also beat Illinois on a neutral site. Overall, the Tigers are 1-2 against Top 25 teams. They've played close games, but lost, against Richmond, Vanderbilt, Oral Roberts, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Baylor.
The Tigers are nigh desperate for a signature win. A home win over Texas might qualify but the irony is that if Mizzou exacerbates Texas' recent struggles, a win over the Longhorns might not be all that bewitching to the selection committee. Mizzou has a very tough closing schedule, with road games at Nebraska, Kansas State and Iowa State. The home games are against Colorado and the season-ender against Kansas. If Missouri doesn't start getting over the hump in its close games against quality opponents, it will find itself on the bubble very soon.
Stylistically, tonight's matchup should be frenzied, if not aesthetic. In terms of adjusted pace, these are two of the 20 most up-tempo teams in the country. However, we've already outlined Texas' offensive issues against quality defenses, of which Missouri certainly qualifies. Mizzou has offensive consistency issues of its own, as Anderson's egalitarian attack funnels too many shots to inefficient guards J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor and doesn't do enough to set up Missouri's premier offensive player, Kim English.
As it always does with Missouri, it'll come down to turnovers and the ability to at least not get hammered on the boards. Mizzou doesn't have anybody physically capable of contending with Texas wide body Dexter Pittman, nor does it have anything resembling a good post scorer. Everything comes from the perimeter when turnovers aren't feeding the offense. As mentioned, Texas has been the best team in the conference at taking care of the ball, but its freshman guards haven't seen a pressure defense like Missouri's. The closest was probably Kansas State's and, in that game, Texas committed 18 turnovers. In fact, turnovers have played a key role in four of the Longhorns' losses, so it should be an interesting matchup.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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