Back before the season started, I estimated that if Texas wanted to make the NCAA Tournament — an admitted long shot at the time — the Longhorns had to come out of a difficult non-conference slate with no worse than a 9-4 record. Instead, after beating in-state rival Rice 66-44, the Longhorns will go into Big 12 play knowing that just a 9-9 mark in conference play puts them at 20 wins even before heading to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament. And thanks to 1) a tough non-con that included six teams in KenPom's top 100 and 2) a strong Big 12 that ranks first among all conferences in RPI, Texas might not even need that magical 20-win mark to get in.
"Conference will be tough, but we're just going to treat those games just like every other," said center Cameron Ridley. "[We will] play as hard as we can and play with the confidence we've been playing with."
Monday was among the easier wins on the non-conference schedule. Texas wasn't ever challenged, and raced out to a 37-19 halftime lead behind 11 first-half points from Jonathan Holmes. And while this year's team has been known for being more of a speed 'em up team than previous Rick Barnes versions, the Rice victory came thanks to Barnes staples like strong inside play, rebounding and defense.
The Longhorns were simply too much for the Owls inside, with Texas's top four scorers — Holmes (15), Ridley (14), Connor Lammert (10) and Prince Ibeh (8) — all coming from the post. Those four combined to score 47 points, or 71.2 percent, of the Longhorns' output for the game.
"It's something we've put an emphasis on in practice coming into the game," Holmes said."Get the ball inside a little bit more. I think we did a pretty good job of that this game."
Texas also held a 42-29 rebounding advantage, a 34-14 points in the paint lead and held Rice to 29 percent shooting for the game. It also didn't hurt that the Longhorns made 19-of-27 free throws to 6-of-7 for the Owls.
Rice's five starters made 8-of-34 shots from the field, a mark of 23 percent. That included a 3-for-21 (14 percent) clip from behind the three-point arc.
Texas is now ranked as the 57th-best team in the country by KenPom, and the fifth-best team in the Big 12, though it's not a far fall from fifth to eighth, with the Longhorns (57th), West Virginia (60th), Oklahoma (62nd) and Kansas State (67th) all within 10 spots of each other.
"I think we've gotten better," Barnes said. "We did a really good job today of moving it and getting the ball inside a little bit. Where we are right now, we've learned a lot about our team but we still certainly have a long way to go."
Texas starts off conference play on a Red River note, beginning with Oklahoma at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Frank Erwin Center.