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Texas kicks off Big 12 play with road game against No. 6 Baylor

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There’s no easing in to the conference schedule for the Longhorns.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

With the slow month of December now over, conference play begins for the Texas Longhorns on Saturday with a trip up I-35 to Waco to face off against the 10-1 Baylor Bears, the best team the 10-2 Longhorns have faced this season.

Currently ranked No. 10 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric and No. 6 in the AP Top 25, Baylor enters the game undefeated in six games at the Ferrell Center this year, including impressive victories there over Butler, Arizona, and Villanova.

After failing to stand up to the physicality of Providence on the road before Christmas, Texas will have to perform better in that regard against Baylor, which Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart called one of the most physical offensive teams in the country.

That means fighting through screens and placing an emphasis on boxing out — the Bears are the No. 11 offensive rebounding team in the country, led by 6’9, 245-pound senior Freddie Gillespie and 6’5, 230-pound junior Mark Vital. Vital in particular is one of the most physical players that Texas will face this season.

Forcing missed shots by Baylor isn’t necessarily an easy task, either, as Baylor ranks No. 51 in three-point shooting percentage this season, led by high-volume shotmakers like sophomore guard Jared Butler (44.4 percent), senior guard Devonte Bandoo (42.1 percent), and junior transfer guard MaCio Teague (36.1 percent).

Butler and Teague are the catalysts, leading the team in scoring at 17.6 points per game for Butler and 14.6 points per game for Teague, who sat out last season after transferring from UNC-Asheville. Despite the high number of three-point attempts for both players — over 70 already for each — they are also aggressive off the bounce and get to the free-throw line frequently.

They will pose a significant challenge for the Texas guards defensively as the best backcourt the Longhorns have faced this season.

When the Longhorns have the basketball, they will have to find ways to execute against the zone-heavy Bears defense, something Smart’s team hasn’t had to do a lot this season. If shots aren’t falling in a hostile environment on the road, Texas will have to find ways to get the ball in the paint and remain aggressive. Against the nation’s No. 14 defense in adjusted efficiency, that won’t be easy.

Last year, a Texas team without Dylan Osetkowski or Kerwin Roach blew a late lead in Waco and then lost in overtime, missing out on a critical opportunity to pad its NCAA resume. If the Longhorns can put themselves in an advantageous position late in the game, they need to be able to finish this year — the road win against Purdue is currently the only win that would push Texas off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament field.

And that’s a significant issue, as barttorvik.com currently gives Texas less than a 10 percent chance to make the tournament.

The game tips off at 7 p.m. Central on ESPN2. KenPom.com gives Baylor an 81-percent chance of victory with a projected margin of 70-61.