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In Las Vegas, Texas showed glimpses of its potential

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The Horns are starting to find an identity as a team that plays stifling defense and spread pick-and-roll offense.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at North Carolina Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Less than two weeks ago, the operative question for Texas Longhorns basketball in head coach Shaka Smart’s fourth season was whether the team could effectively develop an identity to fulfill the upside of Smart’s most talented roster.

A victory in the Las Vegas Invitational over a North Carolina team then ranked No. 7 nationally and a promising start that gave way to a flawed finish against Michigan State, then ranked No. 11, showed that Texas can compete with anyone. And even win.

Defensively, the full-court pressure and overall activity looked more like Smart’s old VCU teams than any other Texas squad, forcing 41 combined turnovers in those two games and generating 53 points off those turnovers.

With more experienced ball handlers, the Horns also avoided giving up points off turnovers totaling only 22 points in Las Vegas. Against the Tar Hells, the margin was 22-3 in favor of Smart’s team.

Through six games, Texas now ranks No. 14 nationally in defensive efficiency.

“Defense, we could be really good,” Smart said on Monday. “I thought we got fatigued to some extent in the Michigan State game and that’s not an excuse. We have to find a way to still be tough-minded and aggressive on defense. I thought we lacked that in the second half of that game. So, we have to get back on the practice court and work really hard on what goes into being a great defensive team.”

The results were ugly and decisive in that second half against a Michigan State guard corps that features two extremely talented juniors in Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford. Winston and Langford combined for 49 points on 9-of-14 shooting from three-point range. On 10 free-throw attempts, they didn’t miss.

So, as was the case against emerging North Carolina sharpshooter Coby White, Texas simply wasn’t able to disrupt any of those three players once they started getting hot.

“When a team is shooting really, really well and making tough shots, you have to make them miss,” Smart told his team. “They’re not going to start missing on their own — you have to make them miss.”

For the guards especially, it was an early-season lesson, and one that they will have to learn in order to finish with a winning record in Big 12 play.

On offense, Smart still wants the team to push the pace more while still operating with poise and patience — the results there are decidedly mixed with the Longhorns ranking No. 188 nationally in adjusted pace — but the emerging identity is using high ball screens to open up opportunities for drivers and divers.

“You probably noticed we made some adjustments offensively where we’ve opened up the lane more just because we feel like we have some guys in Jaxson (Hayes) and Jericho (Sims) when they do screen and sprint the basket it puts a lot of pressure on the rim and also when you open up the floor it gives like Snoop (Roach) and Matt (Coleman) a chance to drive more.”

Through about three halves in Las Vegas, Texas was successful with the high ball screens until Michigan State, a strong defensive team, began hedging hard with the big defending the screen and sagging another defender into the lane. Smart thought his team lost its commitment to the plan in those moments.

Moving forward, the Horns will have to find answers in those situations, but it’s also the case that only 17 teams are ranked higher than the Spartans in the early defensive efficiency rankings on KenPom.com.

There’s also upside on offense, too — Hayes and Sims are the primary screeners and both can gain a better understanding of when to set a screen and when to slip them. The guards can improve with their decision making and how they choose to attack different defensive responses to those ball screens.

“We have a way to go still in terms of utilizing our pick-and-roll game on a consistent basis, making the right reads,” Smart said. “Guys are doing a really good job taking care of the basketball, but there are still some reads we’re missing that we need to make better.”

Roach is emerging as the best pick-and-roll option right now — he’s creating plays for himself and others, as he dished out 11 assists in Las Vegas and showcased his high-end potential by a career-high 32 points on 12-of-15 shooting against North Carolina. He made all three of his three-point attempts, 5-of-7 free throws, and added seven rebounds, six assists, and four steals.

According to Stats by Stats, the only other major conference player to reach each of those marks in the last 20 years is LSU’s Ben Simmons in 2015. So Roach was in rarefied air with that performance.

Smart said that his senior guard has developed in not making pre-determined decisions off the bounce.

Roach has been getting some major help from a high-flying freshman forward, as Hayes has continued to make an impact early in his career.

With 14 blocks, he leads the team and sits near the block rate that Mo Bamba achieved over his freshman season — Bamba blocked 13.2 percent of all opposing shots, while Hayes has blocked 12.3 percent of all opposing shots.

On Monday, Hayes was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week for the second straight week after averaging 13 points, six rebounds, and three blocks in Las Vegas. At the free-throw line, he hit 8-of-10 attempts, showing off a smooth and pure stroke that should prove beneficial for the Longhorns moving forward. Hayes currently ranks second on the team in free-throw attempts and will likely retain one of the highest free-throw rates for Texas.

Despite the overall breakthrough as a team, multiple young players are still trying to learn when they should shoot and when they should pass. Even when they should look at the basket.

Freshman forward Kamaka Hepa, who exerts a high level of effort defensively, is still trying to find his role on offense. Fellow freshman Courtney Ramey, a guard, has oscillated between flashing potential like his game-winning running bank shot against Arkansas and hot start from deep against Michigan State to struggles and hesitancy over other stretches.

Those growing pains are understandable, as are the growing pains of Sims, who has committed 6.7 fouls per 40 minutes in the young season. The foul trouble is clearly impacting Sims mentally as his overall performance puts into perspective just how high the expectations were for him entering the season.

The first step is staying on the court so that his effort level on the offensive glass and in the paint will start to tell.

What happens with Sims over the coming weeks and months could end up serving as a microcosm of the team’s overall growth, which will determine how good Smart’s fourth team will become.

“Are we going to, as a basketball program, really buy into following the plan and place an extreme emphasis on growth and getting better both individually and as a team? If we do, then yeah, I think this team could be really, really good,” Smart said.

“I’m not surprised we were able to win one of those games and we were in a position early the game to win the second one.”

Now the Horns know they can play with anyone. The next step is winning those big games and avoiding the late mistakes that cost Texas last season against weaker opponents.

“We have a chance if we stay healthy — knock on wood — and continue to come together as a team around one cause, to have a really good season.”