It's still early in the Big 12 conference schedule, but Wednesday's meeting between the Texas Tech Lady Raiders and the Texas Longhorns has hugely important stakes, especially for the loser of the game.
Tech (12-2, 1-2) comes to Austin to face the Horns (9-6, 1-2) in a game between a pair of teams whose conference fate hangs in the balance. Dropping to 1-3 in conference play would have very different meanings for each of these teams, but the end conclusion would be essentially the same: the NCAA Tournament starts to become less of a tangible goal and more of a distant reality, something that's quickly fading out of sight, barring a miracle conference tournament run.
Instead of doing a straight-up breakdown of this game, let's talk instead about what it means for each of these basketball teams.
Texas Tech's unbeaten non-conference record might not matter
Starting a season 11-0 is good. You can talk all you want about the relative weakness of the Lady Raider schedule and the fact that they didn't face a single team with a top 150 RPI in those first 11 games, but winning that many games in a row is the sign of a good team.
Tech got to that point because of a variety of factors, but chiefly among them was the play of Brittany Brewer, who did things like "record a triple-double against Lousiana Monroe in which she blocked 16 shots" and "add six more double-doubles on top of that." Brewer was a force in non-conference play, and while she's taken a bit of a step back since Big 12 games started, she's still having an outstanding year and should be in the conversation of all-conference honors at the end of the year.
But the Lady Raiders are currently 1-2 in conference play, with a blowout loss to Iowa State and a close loss to Kansas State. Their one conference win is a good one — 80-76 over a TCU team that's 11-3 on the season — but they've got a tough schedule ahead, with this game against Texas followed by meetings with Kansas (11-3), Oklahoma (9-6), and Baylor (13-1). The Kansas and Baylor games are on the road. The only team they face going forward that's outside of the top 100 in RPI is Kansas State, who Tech just lost to.
That's what makes Wednesday's game so vital for Tech; despite the 11-0 start, it's going to need to win some games if it wants to get an at-large bid to the tournament. Last year, the worst at-large bid by record was North Carolina, who finished 18-14. I'd guess Tech needs 19 wins to have a real chance of getting in, and likely 20 wins to guarantee it makes it. With four games still to play against the class of the conference — Baylor and West Virginia, Tech basically has 12 chances to get the seven or eight wins the team needs. Wednesday's game is virtually a must-win already.
Can Texas get things back on track?
But while Texas Tech missing the NCAA Tournament probably isn't the end of the world for a team no one expected to be in a position where we'd even be discussing that possibility, the Longhorns are a completely different story.
A preseason Top 25 team, things immediately went bad for the Longhorns, who dropped their season opener to South Florida. Since then, they've lost to Arizona, North Carolina State, Hawaii, TCU, and West Virginia.
Some of those losses were defensible, but the Hawaii one was particularly bad, with the Longhorns falling to a team that's currently under .500 by double figures. Three of their losses were by 11 or more points, including a 25-point loss to Arizona.
Texas has a good roster that features players like Joyner Holmes, Sug Sutton and Charli Collier, and at its best, the team beat Stanford and Tennessee. This Longhorns team clearly has the talent to make a run at being the third-place team in the Big 12 behind Baylor and Oklahoma State.
The numbers, though, aren't kind. To go back to the math from the Tech discussion, let's say Texas needs 18 wins to make it into the tournament. The Horns have played an incredibly tough schedule, so it's feasible that they could get in as the at-large bid with the fewest wins.
A loss to Tech would put them at 9-7. They'd need nine more wins to get to that 18 win mark with 14 games to do it, but three of those games are against Baylor and West Virginia, and there's also no guarantee that 18 wins gets them there. They could need 19 or even 20. The margin for error for the Longhorns is just so thin right now, but a win over Texas Tech would make it just a little wider. For a team that's played some uneven basketball this year, that would be a tremendous help.