Texas proves Dance-worthy with win in Stillwater
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Texas coach Rick Barnes didn't question his team's NCAA Tournament credentials -- before Saturday night's Oklahoma State game.
He knew the Longhorns were worthy, even though one stat screamed NIT if the Longhorns finished 8-8 in the Big 12 -- no team had earned a bid to the Big Dance by going .500 in the eight years of this league.
But the invitations aren't handed out on historical data, nor should they be based strictly on a team's conference record or RPI. Sometimes, you just have to pass the eye test.
Texas does without a need for corrective lenses.
The Longhorns beat Oklahoma State on Saturday night in one of the most storied, loudest and cherished venues in the country -- Gallagher-Iba Arena -- to finish the regular season at 9-7, 20-9 overall.
Gone is the Cowboys' national-best 29-game home-court winning streak with a 74-73 loss. Dispatched as well are any questions of Texas' worthiness for the NCAAs.
Texas beat Oklahoma State with team leader P.J. Tucker on Jan. 17 and now it's taken out the Cowboys without Tucker (academically ineligible since the first OSU game), too. In between, the Longhorns were inconsistent but that's to be expected.
Texas had to deal with losing its top inside threat, the season-ending hip injury to freshman center LaMarcus Aldridge and various injuries to guards Kenton Paulino, Sydmill Harris and center Jason Klotz.
"Look at the body of our work that we've done all year," Barnes said. "This team has proven that when we're healthy we can play with people. We came into a great environment, a festive environment where no one thought we had a chance.
"There's no question that if you watch this game you know that Texas belongs in that tournament," Barnes said.
He means the NCAA Tournament. Sure, the Longhorns still have to play the Big 12 tournament next week in Kansas City. But Texas didn't want any angst heading into the event.
There was enough anxiety to go around Austin after the Longhorns were dispatched rather easily, 74-58, by Oklahoma last Monday on the Longhorns' senior night.
Barnes gave the team a few days off to get their legs back and their minds clear. This has been the most trying season for Barnes in his seven seasons in Austin. It started off dealing with NCAA eligibility issues for freshman forward Mike Williams and then the ensuing baggage that faced Tucker, et al.
"It's been a different year but our guys have never wavered," Barnes said. "They've found a way to win games."
The Longhorns got a banked in 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer by Kenny Taylor to give them a 33-32 halftime lead.
"As much bad luck as we've had, we deserve some good luck," Barnes said.
The Longhorns went 1-4 in the first five games without Tucker. They went 5-2 in the ensuing seven games, including a dominating 35-point win over Texas A&M in Austin and culminating with Saturday night's win in Stillwater.
Throughout this stretch, junior Brad Buckman has emerged as the team's scoring leader. He tied a career high with 27 points Saturday night, scoring in the post, at the free-throw line and bedhin the 3-point arc (making 3-of-5).
The previous eight games, Buckman had five double-doubles and averaged 16.3 points and 11.4 rebounds.
So what gives with the blonde-haired post man from Austin?
"I went back to being the guy down low so my teammates could play off of me," Buckman said. "Hopefully we'll turn some heads with this win."
Buckman did give his team a scare with a foul on Terrence Crawford with sixth-tenths of a second remaining and the Longhorns up by three points. Buckman tried to foul him before he went into a shooting motion. Barnes wanted him to foul after the first dribble and thought Buckman had done that, but the official saw Crawford in a shooting position. Crawford went to the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game but made 2-of-3 for the final margin.
Prior to the Buckman foul, freshman point guard Daniel Gibson made two free throws. Gibson has been sensational this season and perhaps will be the national freshman of the year.
"We've had so many guys play so many more minutes and that's a hard thing to adjust in January and February," Barnes said. "The roles have changed but our guys have adjusted."
"I don't like senior nights," Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said. "I've seen too many things happen on senior night."
So too has Barnes. He saw his team lose its identity on theirs earlier in the week and yet find it just in time Saturday in Stillwater in the Cowboys' version.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.