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Grueling schedule will test talented, experienced Texas team

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Talent. Experience. Depth. Star potential. The Longhorns have nearly everything they could want on paper, but reaching their goals will require navigating the nation’s most brutal conference.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Texas Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout his tenure on the Forty Acres, Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart has endured his fair share of unfortunate circumstances: Injuries, roster attrition, Andrew Jones’ leukemia diagnosis, inexperience, and at times, quite simply not enough proven talent to consistently compete in a Big 12 that routinely ranks as the nation’s best conference per KenPom.com.

The latter will likely prove true yet again given the preseason polls and projections, but as for many of the issues and shortcomings that have limited Texas in recent seasons — well, they’re problems of the past.

On paper, Texas features what is far and away the most talented and experienced roster of the Smart era — and likely since the Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson-led Longhorns in 2010-11 — returning all 12 scholarship players and every bit of production from 2019-20. As is, that group, which captured five wins in their final six games last season, would have made for a plenty respectable unit. Factor hyper-athletic five-star forward and potential lottery pick Greg Brown III into the mix and there’s a fairly clear recipe for Texas to enjoy its most successful season under Smart.

“It’s however high we make it,” Longhorns senior point guard Matt Coleman said of the ceiling for Texas. “We’ve got a mature group and bring in a very talented freshman. Everybody that has returned has made a big impact on our season last year when it came to any game. With Greg Brown, in addition, our ceiling is whatever we make it.”

That mature group incorporating Brown has the Horns entering the season ranked No. 9 per KenPom — that’s the encouraging news. The humbling news, however, is that Texas won’t reach its ceiling — however high it proves to be — without being tested relentlessly, essentially on a game-by-game basis, especially throughout their grueling conference slate.

KenPom ranks Texas as one of five Big 12 teams entering the season among the top 10, joining No. 1 Baylor, No. 5 Kansas, No. 6 Texas Tech, and No. 8 West Virginia. Not to mention, Texas will host KenPom’s No. 4 program, Villanova, on Dec. 6, in addition to a late January trip to Lexington to meet No. 12 Kentucky. All told, 10 of the 25 games are currently slated to come against ranked foes — all of which rank among the top 12 per KenPom and top 15 per the Associated Press — including three back-to-back ranked matchups, one of which will include three consecutive ranked foes to cap the regular season in West Virginia, Kansas, and Texas Tech.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — respectively ranked No. 33 and No. 35, per KenPom — will be formidable in their own right and certainly can’t be chalked up as easy wins, either.

All this to say, Texas will feature one of the more talented teams in the Big 12, and certainly one of the most experienced in all of college basketball, boasting 678 career appearances and 344 starts, but wins will be tremendously difficult to come by.

Such is life in the Big 12.

To that end, considering the conference landscape this season with five teams that are projected as elite or at least borderline elite, and others owning postseason capabilities — Oklahoma State fits the description minus their postseason ban — it’s safe to assume that the Texas season may very well hinge on its ability to win close contests. Throughout Smart’s five years in Austin, his Longhorns are a subpar 28-30 in games decided by five points or fewer. However, Texas was 5-2 in such situations last season with a largely veteran roster, and of course, that entire cast of Longhorns is back and more mature — something Coleman thinks can be relied up to creating that advantage during key moments in key games.

“Maturity wins games down the stretches,” Coleman said. “Maturity wins championships. It’s just being able to carry over that maturity when it’s most needed in between those lines when the season starts and we get to the gritty of things.”

But, of course, experience and maturity alone won’t win games. If that were the case, we could go ahead and crown Texas as conference champions before the season even gets underway. As evident by the 10 ranked matchups on the Texas schedule, including eight against conference foes, Smart’s club will have to fight, scrap, and claw for nearly every win.

Fortunately for a program that’s been tasked with trying to battle their way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble in each of the past two seasons, the willingness to aggressively fight for wins and play with “violence,” as Smart says, that are among the characteristics that Andrew Jones thinks will highlight the most notable differences in the 2020-21 Longhorns.

“People will really notice how aggressive we are on defense, how aggressive we are attacking the glass,” Jones said. “How experienced we are, how fluid we are in our offense, how we flow, and how we want to play for each other and try to make each other better.”

Shades of that aggressive, fight-for-every-win nature was becoming evident towards the end of the COVID-shortened 2019-20 campaign, as Texas captured five straight wins in pursuit of a potential tournament berth. But also evident, as Jones detailed, was the developing chemistry and emergence of the Texas guard trio in Coleman, Jones, and Courtney Ramey, who collectively averaged 45 points per contest during the winning streak, headlined by back-to-back wins over No. 20 West Virginia and No. 22 Texas Tech before Coleman capped the streak with a game-winning three on the road in Norman.

“I think it was, you know, the point that we needed some trust each other,” Jones said. “You know, we’re all really three ball-dominant guards, lead guards, so it also takes time for good players learn to play with each other. Once we learned to trust each other, know each other’s spots, we rely on each other, and not necessarily feel we have the need for superhero play all the time. That’s when we started to click, so we started to find each other. And you know, our experience is starting to rub off from each other.”

Elite guard play is often the source of success. There’s certainly evidence that Texas may very well have that this season in Coleman, Jones, and Ramey — they certainly need to be, as Smart has noted before that Texas goes as Coleman and Ramey go, and the offensive firepower from Jones might prove to be the most valuable weapon the Longhorns have.

Complementing that backcourt will be a cadre of wings with varying skill sets, potentially the nation’s most athletic frontcourt rotation in Brown, Jericho Sims, and Kai Jones, and experienced depth behind them all.

In short, the Texas roster has peaked.

Finally.

It has essentially everything Smart could want — veteran guards, elite athleticism, a potential star in Brown, depth, and a wealth of experience.

If there were ever an opportunity for Smart to prove he’s worth the money in Austin, it’s now, and he knows it.

“Focused on capitalizing on the group that we have, the experience that we have,” Smart said. “And taking advantage of the opportunity in front of us knowing that you know this season probably will be unlike any other just because of COVID and because of some of the challenges associated with that. But our guys have really embraced the challenges of the preseason,” Smart added. “They’ve worked extremely hard and now we’re getting close to entering the portion of our season where we play games, and where things like sacrifice, and connectivity, and ability to respond to ups and downs are so important.”

Save for Texas exceeding expectations that are already justifiably high given the roster makeup, there will certainly be ups and downs — such a taxing schedule will all but guarantee that.

But the pieces are undeniably in place for Texas to navigate that schedule with success. And in a key year for Smart and his future in Austin, if he can get the pieces to fit perfectly, his Longhorns believe they can be one of the great groups to don burnt orange and white.

“Why not for this team to be one of the great Texas teams to walk on this campus? I think that’s been the biggest motivation,” Coleman said. “Out of everything, just wanting to be that Texas team we know we can be.”