At the start of the year, most people (myself included) thought Texas would be in big trouble. The Horns lost Julien Lewis, Jalen Bond and Sheldon McLellan to transfers, and Myck Kabongo to the NBA (well the NBA draft at least). Couple that with the fact that Texas already wasn't very good last year, and it figured to be a long year in Austin.
Flash forward a few months and Texas sits at 10-1 with their only loss coming to a good BYU team. Texas hasn't exactly played a murder's row of a schedule, with their second best win probably coming against Stephen F. Austin, but on Wednesday they knocked off North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The way Texas has succeeded under Rick Barnes has gone through a complete 180 over his tenure: from 2003-2008, the Horns had a much better offense than they did defense, and their offense was ranked among the top 10 nationally in four of those six years. Then, Texas turned it on defensively, including having the best defense in the country for much of 2011 before finishing 7th. This year, they're back at it defensively, currently ranked 26th, which buoys their sub 100 ranked offense.
Jeff Haley has written much about how important rim protection is, and it certainly appears to be the case for the Longhorns this year. Texas is third nationally in shot blocking, with Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes leading the way. Just as importantly, Texas is allowing opponents to attempt under 28% of their shots at the rim, and allowing opponents to shoot 54% at the rim (which is actually a bit higher than I'd expect). Even better news for Texas is that opponents are shooting a pretty high percentage from three against the Horns, a number that figures to normalize a bit as the year goes on.
Now the bad news: Team Rankings still has Texas at just around 30% to make the NCAA tournament. They've really struggled offensively, and Javan Felix is having to carry a hefty load on that side of the ball, despite him not really being a fit for that role (see: his shooting 32% from two). Jonathan Holmes, who is shooting amost 50% from three and 54% from two, has been a bright spot for the Horns despite playing just around 20 minutes per game. Whether it will continue is another matter, as Holmes shot under 30% from three the last two years, and he's already hit his career high on the season in terms of three pointers made.
There are both reasons to believe and reasons to disbelieve in Texas's staying power. They don't do anything fancy on defense, they just don't let opponents shoot the ball close to the basket. Couple that with the fact that their opponents' 3pt% is due to go down, and their defense should maintain a pretty high standard all year. But they are just too overmatched offensively, and probably not deep enough, for me to think they can crack the top four of the Big 12, and probably still have a greater chance of missing the NCAA tournament than they do of making it.