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Texas faces tall test in hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth, but the Longhorns have been here before

Just six short weeks ago, it appeared as if the Texas Longhorns had turned a significant corner under fourth-year head coach Shaka Smart. Following a 5-1 start featuring a win over No. 7 North Carolina and a lone neutral court loss to No. 11 Michigan State, Texas was up to No. 17 in the AP Top 25, marking the program’s pinnacle to this point of the Smart era.

Then came the shocking home upset loss at the hands of Radford, and then another home defeat; this time against Smart’s former program, VCU. Suddenly, Texas was suffering through a three-game skid. When paired with another non-conference loss to Providence, and most recently, the team’s first conference loss on the road against Oklahoma State on Tuesday, Texas has fallen short in five of its last 10 outings, dropping to 10-5 on the season.

Considering those five losses, and more specifically, two that the NCAA Tournament selection committee could consider to be “bad losses” against Radford and a 6-8 Oklahoma State squad, Texas’ path to the Big Dance already appears to be an increasingly difficult one to navigate with success.

The sky isn’t falling on the Forty Acres just yet, but ominous clouds loom and the torrential downpour could begin in the coming days.

A Saturday home showdown against No. 8 Texas Tech will serve as the first of six ranked opponents Texas will see throughout the coming seven-game stretch, which includes a pair of meetings with No. 7 Kansas, home stands against No. 23 Oklahoma and No. 23 Iowa State, and a brief road trip to meet No. 25 TCU. The lone unranked exception will be when Texas travels to Georgia on Jan. 26 as part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge.

As if it weren’t already apparent, wins will be difficult to come by for the foreseeable future, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if Texas is teetering around .500 once that stretch comes to a close in early February. Though it shouldn’t quite be as imposing of a stretch, the Longhorns will later close the regular-season slate in similar fashion, seeing four ranked foes in five games, including road games against the Sooners and Red Raiders.

As is, if the Big Dance is the big goal, Texas can’t afford too many more losses — likely eight, maybe nine more, at most, to be specific — but based on the current outlook, 10 ranked opponents are still to come.

However, there is some encouraging news to that end.

Though the Horns have been wildly inconsistent thus far, placing themselves in a less-than-ideal situation entering a brutal stretch, they’ve been here before and come out dancing on the other side. In fact, Texas faced an eerily identical similar circumstance just last season, sitting at 10-5 through 15 games with eight regular-season ranked opponents still to come.

The Horns went on to split their next 18 appearances, but the effort was good enough to sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an 11 seed.

Smart’s debut campaign in 2015-16 was similar, as the Longhorns were just 9-6 through 15 games, though that Isaiah Taylor-led bunch found its stride a bit better that last year’s unit, winning 11 of their next 17 games to capture a 20-12 record and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This time around, can Texas replicate that second-half success and avoid falling short of the tourney for the second time in three seasons?

The Horns have the defense to do so, ranking No. 11 nationally in adjusted defense, per KenPom, though that effort is only fifth-best in the Big 12, trailing Kansas (No. 8), Oklahoma (No. 7), Kansas State (No. 5), and Texas Tech (No. 1). However, the offense has quite literally been hit and miss and that’s been evident on the box score. Texas is averaging 77.2 points per game throughout its 10 wins, but that figure regresses to a paltry 60.6 points throughout the five losses.

If the Longhorns offense allows the latter number to rear its ugly head too many more times, Texas won’t have much to dance about once the Big Dance rolls around.

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