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Providence will provide a physical challenge for Texas

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The Longhorns embark on the season’s second road trip looking to avenge last season’s home loss to the Friars.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Providence Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — For only the second time this season, the Texas Longhorns will play a true road game on Saturday against the Providence Friars in one of the final non-conference games before Big 12 play begins in early January.

Now done with finals, a Texas team off to its best start under head coach Shaka Smart will have a chance to provide some padding to its NCAA Tournament resume against a team that came into the Erwin Center and pushed the Longhorns around last season in a 71-65 victory for the Friars.

“Providence is a really, good good team — we learned that first hand last year,” Smart said. “They’ve got almost all their guys back from that team that came in here and beat us last year. I think they’re a lot better than their record indicates. They’ve got a lot of dangerous guys on their team that can shoot the ball, drive the ball, play with physicality around the basket.”

The last factor is perhaps the most significant, as Texas didn’t respond well to the physicality and aggressiveness of Georgetown during the season’s only loss in New York. The Friars haven’t been playing as well as the Hoyas, as demonstrated by the 6-6 record for head coach Ed Cooley’s team, but Smart is well aware of the necessity to display mental and physical toughness in a road environment on Saturday.

“A very physical team and a team with great size,” Smart said of Providence. “If you remember last year’s game, Snoop [Roach] didn’t play int that game and they took advantage of us, particularly at the guard spots. They were physical, they were bigger and stronger than us, and we’ve got to do a better job than we did in that game standing up to them.”

Much like McNeese State and Central Michigan, Providence will enter the game with a ton of experience, led by senior guards Alpha Diallo, the team’s leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, and Luwane Pipkins, who averages nearly five assists per game. Diallo in particular will represent a challenge for the Longhorns — he’s a big guard at 6’7, 210 pounds who posed a matchup problem last season on his way to a game-high 20 points that included 14 free-throw attempts.

So Saturday’s game will provide a big opportunity for struggling sophomore forward Gerald Liddell. Smart wants Liddell to return to his recipe for success from the NIT championship run last season, when he emerged as a strong defender against opposing wing players.

Other than slowing down Diallo, Texas will also have to keep Providence off of the offensive glass — the Friars rebound 34 percent of their own misses, good for 40th nationally. Defensively, Cooley’s team is active with their hands, forcing steals on 13.6 percent of all opposing possessions, the 10th-best rate in the country.

At the three-point arc, the focus for Texas will be slowing down sophomore guard David Duke, who is 28th in three-point shooting thanks to hitting an even 50 percent of his attempts from deep. Duke is the only Providence player with more than 13 three-point attempts who is shooting better than 30 percent — the Friars rank No. 202 nationally in three-point shooting percentage.

Again, however, the focus for Smart is on developing his team’s mental toughness.

“It starts with mental toughness,” Smart said. “Everybody talks about the physical side of it and that’s important, but you have to have the mental fortitude to say, ‘We’re gonna do the things we practiced and prepared to do regardless of circumstances.’ There’s always, particularly when you go on the road, there’s tough breaks, there’s call that don’t go your way, the crowd’s against you, but it’s how tough can you be to hang in there as a unit, as a team, to go do the right thing.”

The game tips off at 1 p.m. Central on FOX. KenPom.com gives Texas a 52-percent chance to win the game with a projected margin of 68-67.