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Short-handed Texas basketball facing little margin for error

To have a shot at winning, the majority of the team has to play well. Then the ‘Horns have to close out games more consistently.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

“We all we got.”

Before Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart arrived in Gainesville, a former Florida Gators player had coined that term, which remained popular with the team after his departure.

“We all we got.”

Smart reflected back on the usage of that phrase on Monday as his team prepares to face the No. 8-ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders in Austin on Wednesday without guards Andrew Jones and Kerwin Roach II.

“Nobody in college basketball, particularly in this league, is feeling sorry for anyone, any opponent. Winning is too valuable and it’s too hard for anyone to let down. The reality is we’ve got a lot of guys on our team that are healthy and playing that have done a lot of good things this year,” Smart said.

“To win against really good teams in this league, you’re going to have to have right now with the guys we have out, got to have the majority of our guys play well on a given night.”

In other words, the margins are exceptionally small now.

During the two games without Roach because of his fractured left hand, Texas has only played seven players. Against TCU, a home crowd and emotional team used the absence of Jones as a boost during a thrilling double-overtime victory. Last weekend, the group seemingly tired late, blowing a 12-point lead down the stretch and falling on a late basket.

The shortened rotation has forced the available players to test their conditioning level with long stints on the court. So the Texas head coach is looking for other scholarship players to step up, but it has to start in practice. Sophomore center James Banks, for instance, hasn’t appeared during conference play because he hasn’t been giving maximum effort in practice, according to Smart.

Creative ways to rest players who log heavy minutes in practice — like forward Dylan Osetkowski, who played the entire game against Oklahoma State — is another focus for Smart and his staff during practice.

Sometimes, that isn’t enough. Osetkowski missed two open looks late against the Cowboys and the front end of a one-and-one three days after playing 49 minutes against the Horned Frogs.

Regardless of the fatigue level, Smart emphasizes three areas for late-game situations — solid on defense, take care of the basketball, and make free throws. As Smart put it, Texas didn’t do any of those things at a high enough level in Stillwater.

The Oklahoma State defense also made it difficult to execute some key aspects of the Texas offense. With freshman Jase Febres battling an ankle injury and limited to 12 minutes, the Longhorns often used a big lineup featuring Osetkowski, Mo Bamba, and Jericho Sims across the frontcourt.

Against TCU, Texas was able to use one specific play repeatedly to get Osetkowski good looks on the block. On Saturday, those entry passes were made more difficult by the structure of the Oklahoma State defense and its decision to help off of Bamba and Sims on Osetkowski on deep catches.

The combination underscores the types of decisions forced on Smart because of his limited rotation — the Longhorns can rebound well in the big lineup, especially on the offensive end, but it mitigates some of Osetkowski’s advantages offensively when he’s at the four and forces him to defend smaller players.

On Wednesday, Smart may not be able to deploy the lineup as much because Texas Tech often uses four and sometimes five guards who can take advantage of slower defenders with Chris Beard’s motion offense.

Other elements of Smart’s approach are suffering from the absence of Jones and Roach, particularly the ability to use fullcourt pressure defensively and run in transition on offense. The Texas coach still wants his team to get out in the open court when given the opportunity, but the ‘Horns aren’t nearly as potent in that regard without the finishing ability of those two players.

“We can still get out and run,” Smart said. “Again, the question is when guys get fatigued, particularly in the second half of the game, we still have to have a dedication and a willingness to do what goes into scoring in transition. It starts with just running.”

When Texas runs offense in the halfcourt, guard Eric Davis is stepping up to fill the playmaking void, scoring 22 points against TCU and 18 points against Oklahoma State. After struggling with his shot last season and at times this year, Davis made 8-of-14 attempts from deep. Starting strong is key for the Michigan product.

“Eric’s a feel-good guy,” Smart said. “He’s a guy that if it was up to me to orchestrate things, if I had this within my power, he’d go in and hit a quick three, get a layup, make a couple of free throws, then you can count on him to play really, really well the rest of the game.”

Young players are also taking advantage of opportunities, especially freshmen Jericho Sims and Jase Febres. Sims was a human highlight reel on lob dunks against the Horned Frogs in scoring a career-high 14 points. Febres showed his upside in scoring 18 points in the first half against Baylor and added eight points against TCU before an ankle injury limited him to 12 minutes against Oklahoma State.

Both players are still working towards more consistent contributions.

“Never happens as fast as you want it to, particularly when you’re depending on those guys as much as we are, but I do think they’re much further along than they were maybe five, eight games ago,” Smart said.

Meanwhile, freshman point guard Matt Coleman was challenged by Smart to “hit the reset button” after the Baylor game and responded with 17 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, and three steals.

Against Oklahoma State, however, Coleman wasn’t able to maintain that level of play. Within the first five minutes, he picked up his second foul, then made a key mistake late when he over penetrated and drew an offensive foul with 23 seconds left and the ‘Horns up by one point. In 28 minutes, Coleman failed to score double-digit points and committed four turnovers against five assists.

As with most freshman, Smart sees the issues as learning how to play with more poise and reducing his inconsistency from game to game.

“Being highly competitive isn’t enough — you also have to have a level of poise and, again, we learned that in both games. That won us the game last Wednesday and lost us the game against Oklahoma State.”

Other than the Michigan game, Texas has consistently putting itself in a position to win games down the stretch. Close victories against Iowa State, TCU, and VCU attest to the team’s ability to come out on top in those situations. Smart knows that coaches and players (and fans) often focus on the close losses like Duke and Oklahoma State, games featuring blown leads.

“We’ve really got to work on continuing to get better in the last six or eight minutes of the game, whether we’re playing with the lead, the score’s neck and neck, or we’re playing from behind. We’re going to be in those kind of games.”

When those kind of games inevitably happen, Texas players will have to look at each other in the huddle and remember those four words Smart brought with him from Florida.