AUSTIN, Texas — Kamaka Hepa, used to being alone in the corner, finally got the ball, using a pump fake to drive to the basket. Instead of laying the ball in, he passed out to Matt Coleman on the perimeter, who missed his fourth consecutive three-point attempt of the game.
The Texas Longhorns were down by five points with 6:19 remaining, tied for the biggest lead by the Oklahoma Sooners to that point in the game. Texas never got closer than that the rest of the way and lost 72-62 at the Erwin Center to drop the Horns to 0-2 in Big 12 play.
The moment served as a microcosm for the game, this season, and the current state of Texas basketball in the fifth season under head coach Shaka Smart, whose seat gets warmer and warmer with every missed shot and every disappointing result.
The Longhorns only have one KenPom.com top-100 win after losing the type of games Texas needs to win to have any shot at making the NCAA Tournament, an aspiration that gets more and more unlikely as the double-digit losses pile up.
And those missed shots are piling up quickly, too, despite a strong start against Oklahoma that featured four made three-pointers on the first four attempts, then devolved into only four makes on the next 25 attempts from beyond the arc. Many of those shots were wide open.
The players Texas relies on to make those shots didn’t come through against Oklahoma. Sophomore guard Andrew Jones only hit 2-of-9 shots and went 1-of-4 from three-point range and junior guard Jase Febres was 3-of-10 shooting and 2-of-9 shooting from distance.
The criticism offensively is that Texas didn’t get the ball inside to junior forward Jericho Sims after he got off to a strong start and the shots stopped falling from outside. The Longhorns entered the game trying to get the ball inside to exploit matchups, particularly Sims matched up against Sooners junior forward Brady Manek.
“Jericho is such a tough matchup,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said after the game. “So skilled there and they got it into him early and he was getting his way — a couple offensive boards as well. I thought we started fighting for position a little bit, not letting him catch the ball quite as deep. Easier said than done sometimes. He’s good — he’s going to win some battles — but I thought our guys started at least winning their share of the battles.”
Texas is aware of the need to get Sims the ball — the team runs sets to feed the post, but Smart said after the game that the guards need to force feed him the ball in games like this loss to Oklahoma, because Sims needs to take 15 or more shots the guards aren’t playing well.
“There’s actions we run to try to get him in the post,” Coleman said. “We as a unit, including myself, he’s our best option offensively right now because he’s dominating the paint. We as guards, we as a team, have to have more sense of urgency to get Jericho the ball.”
Sims still needs to become more assertive, too — he was reluctant to admit that he’s earned the right to get the ball on the block and still doesn’t always call for it when he’s open. For the notoriously mild-mannered Sims, that’s an area for growth in which the coaching staff is desperately trying to get more out of him.
As the offense increasingly revolves around Sims, his touches may start coming at the expense of some freedom for the guards. Smart is consistent about his preference for them to play aggressive, confident, and loose and his belief that they need freedom to do that, but admitted that he might need to limit that freedom.
“If you want to go out and play with an aggressive and confident mindset, you need freedom,” Smart said. “If you don’t do that, you need less freedom. In a game like tonight, based on the way that some of those plays went, there should be less freedom. There needs to be. We have to script even more when guys are playing like they did tonight.”
Texas didn’t play poorly the entire game — there was the hot shooting start and two separate nine-point leads in the first half, including 29-20 with 7:17 remaining in the first half. At that point, the Horns were largely executing the gameplan — attacking off the bounce, getting the ball into the paint, and converting when Oklahoma’s defense left shooters open.
“Really playing well offensively, sharing the basketball,” Smart said of that stretch. “Obviously, they were making some shots, but you’re up nine at home and that’s a point in the game where you have to grab hold of it and go take the game. We obviously didn’t.”
From that point, Texas only made one of its next 10 shots and then gave up a momentum-changing three-pointer at the buzzer by Oklahoma guard Austin Reaves to allow the visiting team the lead heading into halftime. The offense stagnated, with the guards either dribbling too much or failing to score around the rim.
The Horns were able to keep the game close throughout much of the second half, then collapsed down the stretch after Coleman missed that open three.
The defensive intensity wasn’t there early in the second half, though — Oklahoma made four straight shots early to key a 7-0 run as Texas simply didn’t provide enough resistance. At that point in the game, the Sooners were shooting better than 50 percent from the field and exactly 50 percent from the three-point line. Some of the blame fell on Jones, who was repeatedly exploited by Oklahoma players on the defensive end.
Oklahoma also benefited from what Doolittle characterized as increased physicality in the second half on the defensive glass that helped limit offensive rebounds by Texas. After grabbing six in the first half, the Horns only had three in the second half, as the home team was able to get its hands on offensive rebounds or come close to securing them, but couldn’t come down with enough to make up for the poor shooting.
Stopping Dootlittle posed a familiar challenge for the Horns — the senior forward grew up an Oklahoma fan, but hadn’t won a game in Austin on his first three tries. He’s always played well in the Erwin Center, though.
“I probably wouldn’t be here if that was the case,” Doolittle said when asked what his career would look like if he played every game like he does in Austin.
Doolittle scored a game-high 22 points on only 16 shots, doing most of his damage playing one-on-one basketball. Not all of those shots were quality, he admitted after the game, but he was able to consistently beat every defender that the Longhorns put in front of him, including Sims, who expressed frustration after the game about his inability to consistently stop Doolittle.
The senior forward got some help from sophomore guard Jamal Bienemy, who entered the game in a virtual season-long slump — his 11 points was his first double-digit performance since the second and third games of the season nearly two months ago. He made four of his six shot attempts and added four assists.
The result is that Texas is 0-2 in conference play facing a difficult schedule that includes projected losses 10 of the final 16 games. The season feels like it’s hanging on the brink as Smart struggles to push the right buttons with this team.
Texas will be back in action on Saturday at the Erwin Center against Kansas State at 7 p.m. Central.