AUSTIN (AP) – Texas’ long and miserable season would seem like it can’t end soon enough. Coach Rick Barnes may not let that happen.
The Longhorns crashed out of the Big 12 tournament Thursday night and for the first time since 1998 won’t be playing in the NCAA tournament.
But after his team lost 66-49 to No. 11 Kansas State, Barnes said he expects the Longhorns will keep playing next week in the lower-level College Basketball Invitational, which will announce its lineup on Sunday night.
Texas is 16-17. If the Longhorns don’t play — and win — at least two more games, Barnes will have his worst losing season in 15 seasons at Texas. And that may be asking a lot of young team that has struggled to look inspired at times this season, even when all of its best players were on the court.
Texas is one of just six schools to play in the NCAA tournament each of the previous 14 years, but the Longhorns went into the Big 12 tournament needing to grab the champion’s automatic NCAA bid to keep that streak alive. Kansas State ended those hopes with their third win of the season over the Longhorns.
“That’s something we’ve never taken for granted. I certainly haven’t. I think people act like it’s easy to get to,” Barnes said. “I’m disappointed. But we are who we are. We weren’t good enough.”
During most of that 14-year run, Texas made it look pretty easy. The Longhorns had to sweat out a few invitations but were a lock for the NCAA tournament most years. Barnes took the Longhorns to the Final Four in 2003 and to regional finals in 2006 and 2008.
But this year’s miss is the culmination of steady postseason slide. Texas is 2-4 in the NCAA tournament since 2009 and hasn’t made it past the first weekend of play since making the regional final in 2008. Despite those results, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has said Barnes’ job is safe.
Looking back, Texas’ bad 2012-2013 season started to unravel before it even began. Myck Kabongo was sidelined for 23 games with an NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits on a trip to Cleveland last summer, then misleading school investigators when asked about it.
Kabongo was one of the top guards in the Big 12 and Texas’ young lineup clearly missed its floor leader. The Longhorns were 10-13 without Kabongo, including an embarrassing loss to Division II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational in November, and started 0-5 in the Big 12, their worst losing streak under Barnes.
Texas won six of its last nine when Kabongo returned. Assuming Texas would have won two out of every three games with Kabongo all season, the Longhorns would be hovering around 21 wins and sitting with at least a good chance of making a 15th consecutive NCAA tournament.
Longhorns forward Jonathan Holmes wouldn’t use Kabongo’s absence as an excuse for the bad start in the Big 12.
“We just never gave ourselves chances to win,” Holmes said.
Texas hasn’t played in the National Invitation Tournament since 1986 and that tournament hasn’t invited a team with a losing record since it was taken over by the NCAA in 2006.
Barnes said he expects the Longhorns will play in the CBI and Texas would be the first Big 12 team to play in that tournament in its six-year history. Last year, the CBI invited Washington State at 15-16 and the Cougars made it to the championship.
Tournament spokesman Ray Cella would not say if Texas as among the teams the CBI wanted this year.
“We’re looking for teams that are playing well at the end of the season, teams that want to continue to play,” Cella said. “We’ve all seen teams that don’t really want to keep playing and that’s not fun to watch.”
Texas’ bigger question is Kabongo’s future with the team, not over just the next few days or weeks but next season.
The trip to Cleveland that caused him so much trouble came when Kabongo was considering going to the NBA after this freshman season. The NCAA determined Kabongo improperly accepted airfare and personal training instruction. Kabongo chose to return to Texas last year, but will face the same decision again. Kabongo wouldn’t talk about it after the loss to Kansas State.
“I’m not thinking about that stuff,” Kabongo said.
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