Texas Longhorns (13-15 overall, 5-10 Big 12) at #15/18 Oklahoma State Cowboys (21-6, 11-4)
Gallagher-Iba Arena | Stillwater, OK | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #249

Although it has been more than 10 weeks since the Texas Longhorns have put together a winning streak, the team still enters this afternoon’s showdown with Oklahoma State riding some momentum. Thanks to a furious 22-point comeback in the final eight minutes, Texas stormed back against rival Oklahoma on Wednesday night, eventually earning a 92-86 victory in overtime.

The emotional comeback rejuvenated a team that looked to be sleepwalking on defense for the first 30 minutes, and it energized the bench in a way seen only a few times in this disastrous season. The victory also gave the team some confidence as it heads down the home stretch of the season, although it’s possible Coach Rick Barnes may have been a bit too caught up in the moment. “I don’t think there’s a team in the country that wants to play Texas,” he told reporters after the game.

While the proud coach may have overstated things, it’s undeniable that the Longhorns have looked like a different team since the return of Myck Kabongo. The team has slashed its turnover rate since his return, and the Horns’ two best offensive efficiency marks of the season have come in the last three games. Although Texas still doesn’t knock down its shots with consistency, there is more fluidity to the offense on most possessions.

Markel Brown and OSU are still in the Big 12 title hunt
(Photo credit: David Smith/Associated Press)

Even with the improvements on offense, it’s hard to believe that Texas is somehow still in a position to avoid the first round of the Big 12 tournament and a potential quarterfinal matchup with the league’s first or second-place team. Although the odds are slim, the Longhorns could still grab the 6-seed in the Big 12 tourney by winning out, if Baylor loses to Kansas State and Kansas on the final two Saturdays of the season. To summarize and thus avoid getting into the minutiae of tiebreaking principles, the Longhorns would be slotted ahead of the Bears thanks to wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma.

Of course, the biggest hurdle in that scenario is Texas earning a very tough road win today. Oklahoma State is in the midst of its best season in nearly a decade, and historic Gallagher-Iba Arena is once again filling up and providing an intimidating home-court advantage. The Cowboys have lost just twice at home this year — by a combined two points — and the second of those losses took two overtimes to sort out. It’s safe to say that it will be a stiff challenge for the young Horns this afternoon, but at least there’s actually still something besides pride that this team can play for.

Meet the Cowboys

For an in-depth look at the Oklahoma State roster, check out LRT’s game preview from the first meeting between these two teams.

The first match-up

In the final game without point guard Myck Kabongo, the Longhorns struggled to put the ball in the basket and never really challenged Oklahoma State in a 72-59 loss, the first OSU victory at the Erwin Center since 2004. Texas made only one of its 18 three-point attempts, the worst percentage ever by a Longhorn team, with the minimum qualification of at least 10 tries. Coming into the game, Oklahoma State opponents had made 34% of their shots from behind the arc.

Although the Longhorns actually bested their season average in the turnover department, the team still struggled to get any offensive flow thanks to numerous miscues by point guard Javan Felix. The freshman coughed it up eight times on the afternoon, while only logging one assist.

It was fellow freshmen Demarcus Holland and Ioannis Papapetrou who kept Texas in the game, combining for 28 points on 41.6% shooting. Unfortunately, the pair was also responsible for eight of the 17 three-point misses for Texas on the afternoon. Holland’s performance against Oklahoma State elevated him into the starting lineup days later against Iowa State, a role he has held for the last five games.

All-everything guard Marcus Smart (No. 33) led the way for Oklahoma State, pouring in 23 points to make up for seven turnovers. He was a strong 3-for-6 from long range, despite hitting just 27.7% of his three-point attempts prior to that game. OSU also enjoyed a solid performance from Le’Bryan Nash (No. 2), who had been consistently inconsistent all season. The 6’7″ sophomore snagged nine rebounds, a marked improvement in an area where he had been repeatedly under-performing.

It wasn’t only Nash who hit the glass hard, as Oklahoma State dominated the rebounding battle. The Cowboys reclaimed more than 41% of their missed shots, and they turned those extended possessions into an extra 14 points. On the other end of the floor, the Longhorns could only corral 25.6% of their misses against the long, athletic Cowboy roster. With struggles on the glass and struggles from the field, Texas was fortunate to limit the final margin to only 13 points.

Since then…

The victory over Texas was the fifth consecutive win for Oklahoma State, and it kept them just a game out of first place. The Pokes would then reel off two more, including a thrilling overtime win against in-state rival Oklahoma, which set up a monumental showdown with Kansas for first place.

Earlier in the year, Oklahoma State had ended the Jayhawks’ 33-game home winning streak, becoming just the second visiting team in 104 games to leave Phog Allen Fieldhouse with a win. When Smart punctuated the upset by doing a flashy backflip across the court, KU fans and players circled February 20th on the calendar, looking forward to the chance for revenge. The stage was only made bigger by the fact that both teams entered the game at 9-3 in Big 12 play and were squaring off for first place.

It would take two overtimes to decide the game, and a slew of whistles in the extra periods sucked much of the excitement out of an otherwise epic battle. Kansas made only one field goal in the two overtimes, but that one hoop would prove to be the difference. A jumper from Naadir Tharpe just inside the free throw line put Kansas ahead with 16.5 seconds left, and Markel Brown’s turnaround attempt from the perimeter drew iron in the final seconds.

The loss put the Cowboys just a game back of Kansas and Kansas State, but they have kept pace with the league leaders over the last week. Oklahoma State gets one more crack at the Wildcats when they host KSU in the season finale, but the team will still need outside help to catch up with Kansas. The Jayhawks have home games remaining against West Virginia and Texas Tech, but close out the year at Baylor. Although anything can happen, the schedule certainly seems to favor KU.

Le’Bryan Nash is coming off a career night
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

If Oklahoma State is going to run the table and finish 14-4 in league play, a big reason could be the emergence of Nash. The sophomore was a McDonald’s All-American, but never lived up to the hype in his freshman campaign. This year, he ceded the leadership role to Smart, but still was struggling to produce consistently. Nash often failed to play good defense, took poor position on rebounds, and liked to hang out on the perimeter, despite a three-point percentage hovering around the Mendoza line.

There is hope that the light has finally clicked on for Nash, however. In Wednesday night’s game against TCU, the sophomore was aggressive from the opening tip. He posted up and exploited his size advantage when mismatches arose. When facing bigger players who lacked foot speed, he would face up and drive to the rim. It all added up to a career high for Nash, who scored 28 and ripped down six boards in front of his family and friends who made the trip to Fort Worth from Dallas.

If Nash continues to give that kind of effort, the Cowboys will be very difficult to slow down the rest of the year. Of course, Nash’s sudden surge is not the only new wrinkle that opponents will now have to worry about. Guard Brian Williams (No. 4) is seeing even more minutes as he works his way back from a broken wrist, giving Oklahoma State additional length on the perimeter and another lockdown defender.

That defensive presence isn’t all that Williams brings to the table. Although his perimeter D is what he’s best known for, Williams averaged more than 16 points in the last six games of 2011-12. After missing the first 18 games of this season due to that broken wrist, it will likely take the sophomore a little while to build back up to that dominant level. When he does, an already-talented Oklahoma State team is going to be even scarier.

Keys to the game

1) Knock down the threes – The perimeter is one area where Oklahoma State opponents actually find success, but Texas was completely useless behind the arc in the first game between these two teams. The Longhorns should easily be able to improve upon the 5.6% mark they posted in that game, but they will need to do much better this afternoon to keep themselves competitive in the rematch.

In the last three games, Texas has connected on 35.2% of its three-point attempts. While the season average for the Horns is still an ugly 28.8%, the numbers are at least trending in the right direction. Thanks to OSU’s great shot blocking skills and ability to turn back most dribble penetration, the Longhorns are going to have to knock down threes to win this game. If they can continue with their recent trend, the Horns will have a shot, but a repeat of their performance in the first game could make things ugly in a hurry.

2) Battle on the boards – Texas was dominated on the glass when the teams first played in Austin, but the Horns were without sophomore forward Jonathan Holmes. If the Horns hope to stay in the game this afternoon, they will have to drastically improve upon their 58.5% mark on the defensive glass, and will have to win more second chances on the other end of the court.

The Cowboys tend to go with a four-out look, and their forwards are incredibly springy and athletic. If Texas elects to play both Holmes and Connor Lammert at the same time, the pair will have to get a body on the very slippery OSU forwards when shots go up. The Longhorn guards will also have to be alert, as Smart rebounds incredibly well from the perimeter. The Longhorns cannot afford to get into a shootout with the Pokes, so they will have to close out their defensive possessions with strong boards and eliminate second chances for OSU.

3) Avoid perimeter turnovers – Smart has some of the quickest hands in the nation, posting the country’s ninth-best steal rate. The rest of OSU’s perimeter D has length that makes it very difficult to penetrate or even pass it around the arc. As Texas learned in the first game, controlling the ball can be very tough against the Cowboys. Having Kabongo available this time around will certainly make a difference, but Texas still has to be careful.

While it’s obvious that turnovers hurt the offense by wasting possessions, miscues on the perimeter are even more deadly when playing on the road. Guard-to-guard passes that are swiped are almost always turned into a fast-break bucket, while balls stripped from the hands of a guard usually produce the same result.

In front of a pumped-up crowd at one of the toughest road venues around, live-ball turnovers that lead to fast-break points will only whip the crowd into more of a frenzy and build momentum for the home team. Texas not only needs to limit its turnovers this afternoon, but also has to hope that any miscues are mostly of the dead-ball variety.