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No. 13 Texas hosts Texas State

The Longhorns have one final non-conference game before the crucible of Big 12 play begins.

Texas basketball

The final non-conference matchup for the No. 13 Texas Longhorns tips off at the Erwin Center at 7 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network as the Longhorns host the Texas State Bobcats.

Texas State enters the game with a 3-1 record under interim head coach Terrence Johnson following a tumultuous offseason that featured the resignation of Danny Kaspar after players alleged that he made racially insensitive comments towards them. So far, Texas State has handled its business against overmatched opponents like Mary Hardin Baylor, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and Incarnate Word, but lost by 17 points in Starkville against Mississippi State.

Johnson has been working to replace two of the top three leading scorers last season, including Nijal Pearson, the leading scorer in program history and the 2020 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. Junior guard Mason Harrell, who is listed at 5’9 and 145 pounds, has stepped up in Pearson’s absence, scoring 14.5 points per game at a high level of efficiency — he’s shooting 50 percent from the floor, 60 percent from the three-point line, and 88.9 percent at the free-throw line. Three other players are averaging just over nine points per game.

The Bobcats have shot well from beyond the arc overall — at 40 percent, Texas State ranks No. 32 nationally. Johnson’s group has also protected the basketball well, turning it over on only 16.2 percent of its possessions, but hasn’t rebounded the ball well offensively.

On defense, Texas State has blocked shots at a high rate, 14.9 percent of all shots taken by opponents. Securing defensive rebounds and keeping opponents off the foul line have been struggles, however, as the Bobcats just aren’t a good rebounding team overall, mostly due to a lack of size — there’s no one on the team taller than 6’8 as Texas State ranks No. 277 nationally in average height.

“Texas State’s got a really nice program,” Smart said on Tuesday. “TJ is doing a good really good job there. I’m proud of him. And so, it’s not like it’s going to be easy, it’s not like we can throw one punch and it’s going to be over — we’re going to have to play for 40 minutes.”

In the past, Texas has struggled to avoid letdowns against good mid-major programs. Remember the consecutive losses to VCU and Radford two years ago?

“You always have to check your maturity level and your focus level on where you are as a team,” Smart said. “I told the guys yesterday, ‘This is going to be as much of a statement about us as any game that we play because the very same guys in this room, coaches and players have experienced games like this, where we’ve not been our best in the past.’ And that’s either cost us in that game or it’s cost us later on because we didn’t build the habits that we needed to build,” said Smart.

That should be less of a concern this year with senior point guard Matt Coleman, who earned Big 12 Conference Player of the Week honors after securing the Maui Invitational MVP award and averaging 16.3 points per game and 4.5 assists per game last week.

But Smart is focused on seeing improvements from two experienced players who are struggling — senior forward Jericho Sims and redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones.

Sims played well against Davidson in making all five of his field-goal attempts and scoring in double digits for the only time so far this season, but missed several shots around the rim against Villanova and committed three fouls in 23 minutes. During the film session reviewing Sunday’s game against the Wildcats, Smart and some of the players challenged him to play better.

According to Smart, Sims responded in practice on Monday.

“But let’s be honest — it’s about carrying it over in the game,” Smart said. “We’ve got to make sure that we really have an awareness of what exactly we expect from him.”

One area where Sims struggled was with the angle of his ball screens against a Villanova team that switched all of its screens. Smart will also likely want Sims to use his size advantage to bully smaller Texas State players, as the most common lineup for the Bobcats features 6’7, 200-pound Alonzo Sule and 6’8, 175-pound Isiah Small in the frontcourt. Sims is listed at 6’10 and 245 pounds.

Meanwhile, Jones is taking a high volume of shots, but isn’t converting with any level of efficiency — he’s only 5-of-24 shooting from three-point range (20.8 percent) with nearly 56 percent of his shots coming from beyond the arc. He’s also turning the ball over on nearly 20 percent of his possessions.

Smart wants Jones to focus on the areas that he can control as he tries to find his rhythm.

“He’s a guy if there’s ever a guy that you say ‘Hey, he’s gonna be fine as long as he keeps shooting and keeps attacking,’ Smart said. “Now that being said, like every other player on our team, he needs to lead with the defense end, giving great effort and giving great intensity.”

When Jones does have the ball, he would benefit from being more aggressive attacking the basket — he’s only taken six free-throw attempts through four games. Seeing the ball go in the basket from the charity stripe or getting a finish or two at the rim might be what he needs to get his three-pointers to finally start falling.

The Longhorns have posted 26 straight victories against the Bobcats, including 22 consecutive home games. Kenpom.com gives Texas a 95-percent win probability with a projected final score of 75-57.