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Texas hosts Kansas State trying to avoid disastrous Big 12 start

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The Longhorns won’t play a more winnable game for the rest of the regular season.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

With the Texas Longhorns reeling from double-digit losses in the last two games and three of the last four contests, the Kansas State Wildcats travel to the Erwin Center on Saturday evening for what has become a must-win game for head coach Shaka Smart’s team.

Now 0-2 in Big 12 play, Texas finds itself on the brink of a disastrous season — KenPom.com currently projects the Longhorns to finish 6-12 in conference play and lose nine of the next 10 games after the Wildcats come to town. Even if Texas wins on Saturday, things are likely to get ugly in the next five weeks unless this team can improve quickly. Perhaps even if it does.

And while it’s still early in conference play, it appears that a home game against Kansas State is the best cure for a struggling team. No one else in the conference is ranked below No. 62 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric — except, of course, for Texas at No. 74 as the Horns sink like a rock dropped in water — so this is a big opportunity to get a victory and regain some confidence at the No. 89 team.

That’s possible and perhaps even likely because Kansas State lost three key players from last year’s 25-9 team that went 14-4 in conference play — forward Dean Wade and guards Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes. Those three players represented the team’s leaders in scoring, assists, and rebounds, as well as three of the four top players in offensive rating, and combined to score 4,533 points in their respective careers.

The leaders now are junior Cartier Diarra and seniors Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien. Diarra and Sneed are the only double-digit scorers, with Diarra stepping into the role of primary playmaker at No. 6 nationally in assist rate.

The defense is playing at high level — No. 40 in adjusted efficiency — but the offense turns the ball over too frequently and doesn’t make shots consistently enough. Because the Wildcats over turn opponents over frequently, this game could end up looking pretty sloppy with a potentially wide range of possible results against the streaky Longhorns.

However, since five of the team’s seven losses are by six points or less, Kansas State is a competitive team with a 7-7 record that doesn’t reflect how close it is to having a better season, much like Texas last year. The season trends for the Wildcats look like the recent trends in this series, as five of the last eight games between the two games have been decided by three points or less.

For Texas, the emphasis starts on the defensive end by forcing Diarra to make plays for himself instead of teammates and limiting Sneed and Mike McGurl from three-point range.

On offense, the guards have to do a better job of force feeding junior forward Jericho Sims in the post and Sims needs to adopt a physical mindset when trying to gain position and seal Mawien, who is 6’9 but only 228 pounds. Expect Smart to reign in the guards, who haven’t earned the amount of freedom they’ve been given and could benefit from a more structured offense.

Perhaps the emergence of sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa could give the Horns a spark — Hepa hit three three-pointers against Oklahoma on Wednesday to tie his career high and also had two assists. If he can knock down some shots and continue to move the ball while spacing the floor, Sims and the guards will have more room to operate.

Keep an eye on the 60-point mark for Texas, as Kansas State has won 85 of the 94 games under head coach Bruce Weber in which it has held opponents under 60 points.

The game tips off at 7 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network. Texas has a 67-percent win probability with a projected score of 63-58, according to KenPom.com. Kansas State has won three straight games in Austin and has a 22-16 overall advantage in the all-time series.