What was an unblemished 2-0 start to conference play just weeks ago has since seen Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns slump into a three-game losing skid, dropping to 10-7 overall on the year. Fortunately for the Horns, a Saturday evening Red River meeting with the No. 20 Oklahoma Sooners will provide Texas with a prime opportunity to rectify its recent struggles and capture an essential, resume-building win at home.
The Sooners, too, enter Saturday’s showdown struggling a bit.
After cruising to an 11-1 mark throughout the non-conference slate, Oklahoma has dropped three of its last five to begin Big 12 action, including a double-digit home loss on Wednesday to a Kansas State squad that appears to be finding its stride. That said, the Sooners’ three other losses did come at the hands of ranked competition in No. 25 Wisconsin on a neutral court, and on the road against No. 5 Kansas and No. 8 Texas Tech.
If history is of any indication, the odds aren’t in favor of Sooners’ struggles coming to an end on Saturday at the Erwin Center — Oklahoma has lost 18 of its last 27 meetings with Texas, including both matchups last season, despite the Sooners entering ranked and favored on each occasion.
Can this year’s Sooners squad prove that they’re as stout as their ranking suggests and steal a road win against a Texas team that’s enjoyed far more Red River success in recent years?
Head coach Lon Kruger’s bunch certainly boasts the experience to do so, and more notably, decent depth and an elite defense, which could prove problematic against a Longhorns offense that’s endured its fair share of struggles.
With a nine-man rotation and nearly enough able bodies to employ a platoon system, Oklahoma enters ranked No. 9 nationally in adjusted defense, per KenPom.com, though that effort trails Kansas State (No. 4) and Texas Tech (No. 1) in the Big 12. Fortunately for the Horns, the Sooners’ stout defense isn’t far off from the norm for Texas this season. In addition to already meeting Texas Tech and Kansas State, the Longhorns have squared off with VCU and Kansas thus far this season, as well, which rank No. 6 and No. 10 in adjusted defense, respectively.
That said, against said defenses, Texas is just 1-3 after averaging only 65 points per contest and shooting only 43 percent from the field. Given that Oklahoma’s sits at just 73rd in adjusted offense, per KenPom, it would be safe to assume Saturday won’t become a shootout, but in comparison to the similarly-ranked defenses Texas has seen to date, Oklahoma presents a better offense than all but Kansas (No. 24).
At first glance, that would be a bit difficult to determine on paper alone.
Unlike last season when future top five pick Trae Young blossomed into an offensive star for the Sooners, Oklahoma doesn’t feature quite the same firepower in 2018-19. Senior guard Christian James is producing at a praiseworthy clip, leading the Sooners in scoring and rebounding at 17 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest. Sophomore forward Brady Manek (11.2 PPG), junior forward Kristian Doolittle (9.1 PPG), and grad transfer guards Aaron Calixte (8.7 PPG) and Miles Reynolds (9.1 PPG) each contribute considerably to Oklahoma’s offense, as well. Calixte (39%), James (33%), and Manek (33%) are each threats from three.
Though they aren’t quite as notable from a scoring standpoint, when starting center Jamuni McNeace and bench contributors Rashard Odoms, Jamal Bieniemy, and Matt Freeman are considered, Oklahoma’s rotation features five seniors and two juniors.
Texas enjoys similar depth, though Kamaka Hepa’s role in the rotation varies quite significantly at times, with Oklahoma being an opponent he could see the floor against with the similarly-skilled Manek at power forward.
The reality for Texas is this: the Longhorns could beat Oklahoma on Saturday and most wouldn’t necessarily consider it to be much of an upset. On paper, Texas is arguably the more talented team, and that talent has briefly been on display at times in a win over No. 7 North Carolina, throughout the first half of a loss to No. 11 Michigan State, and most recently, in a two-point loss on the road against No. 7 Kansas. However, inconsistency has plagued Smart’s program, which is why Texas has also added what the NCAA Selection Committee could consider to be ‘bad losses’ against Radford and a now 8-9 Oklahoma State squad.
With Texas seemingly already on the cusp of the must-win portion of its schedule, largely due to the aforementioned bad losses, the outcome of Saturday’s showdown with the Sooners should largely be determined by which version of these Longhorns arrive at the Erwin Center.
As the second portion of what will be a double-header at the Erwin Center on Saturday, as the Texas women’s basketball team will host TCU at 1:00 p.m. Central, the Longhorns will host Oklahoma at 7:00 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network. For those in attendance, the Sugar Bowl trophy from Texas’ 28-21 win over Georgia will be on display on the concourse from 11:30 a.m to 1:00 p.m., and then again from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.