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Texas hosts Texas Tech hoping for Kamaka Hepa’s return

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The Horns hope to start another winning streak against the Red Raiders in Austin.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Texas Tech Red Raiders swept the Texas Longhorns on their way to the national championship game, including breaking a 22-game winning streak by the Longhorns in Austin.

On Saturday, the Red Raiders and Longhorns will face off at the Erwin Center for the first of two games during conference play.

Head coach Chris Beard’s fourth Texas Tech team isn’t as good as last year’s group — the Red Raiders have already surpassed last season’s loss total at 14-8 — and is looking for its first Big 12 road win in nearly a month. Tech is also dealing with an ankle injury to key reserve Chris Clarke, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech who re-aggravated his injury against Oklahoma and only played six minutes. Clarke played less than 10 minutes against Kansas, too, and has only scored more than four points once in the last six games.

Clarke is averaging less than six points per game this season, but leads the team in rebounding per game (7.2), assists per game (5.2), and free-throw rate (38.7). So if Clarke can’t play or is limited against the Longhorns, the Red Raiders will be without a primary rebounder, playmaking, and one of their most aggressive offensive players.

The injury news is more positive for Texas, as head coach Shaka Smart said on Friday that sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa participated in practice on Thursday, so there’s hope that he could play on Saturday after suffering a mild high ankle sprain that has caused him to miss four games over the last two weeks. Whether Hepa plays will depend on how his ankle responds to the activity on Thursday.

Before the injury, Hepa was starting and turned in three of the best performances of his career early in Big 12 play, scoring efficiently from three-point range, spacing the floor, and keeping the ball moving on offense.

Whether or not Hepa returns, Texas is now halfway through conference play desperately needing the type of resume-boosting wins that beating Texas Tech could provide.

“I think when you get to this time of year, it’s really, really important to go back to, you know what your core elements are as a team and I think the biggest thing that we’ve emphasized to our guys is, we’re at our best when we’re connecting, when we’re together, we’re helping each other,” Smart said. “And then obviously in a game like Saturday’s game, any of these conference games, it’s about being the more aggressive team, and that has to start on the defensive end.”

Despite the fact that the Horns rank among the top 50 teams nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, the Big 12 is so competitive on that end of the floor that Texas ranks No. 8 in the conference in that category. The primary culprits are poor defensive rebounding (No. 10) and the inability to create steals (No. 10).

Those are extremely limiting factors in ending opposing possessions and getting out into transition to score easy baskets before those high-level defenses get set. So Smart is emphasizing the need to get the ball up the court as quickly as possible instead of walking it up and to make fast decisions about whether to shoot, drive, or pass in situations like closeouts or rotations to keep defenses from resetting.

“If after 15-20 seconds of the possession, you’ve allowed them to reset, then they’re gonna be tough to score on,” Smart said. “So for our guys it’s about really being an attacking and aggressive group of perimeter players.”

Texas Tech ranks No. 11 in adjusted defensive efficiency and employs the increasingly popular no-middle approach that attempts to push the ball towards the baseline and help defenders. Compared to last season, when the Red Raiders had the best defense in the 18 seasons of data from KenPom.com, this group isn’t as good, but the principles remain the same.

Last season, a much better Texas offense struggled against that approach, so the Longhorns will have to find ways to score without the typical production from ball screens. One key will be the play of junior forward Jericho Sims. Against Kansas on Monday, the Jayhawks were employing a similar approach of downing side ball screens to force the guards towards the baseline and away from the screen. In response, Sims popped to the top of the key instead of rolling to the basket and was able to operate successfully off the dribble on his way to 17 points.

When Texas Tech has the ball, Texas will have to slow down rising freshman guard Jah’mius Ramsey, who is leading the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game. Ramsey can be prone to turnovers, so Longhorns junior guard Matt Coleman will have to chance to harry Ramsey into some bad decisions.

On the interior, Stephen F. Austin graduate transfer TJ Holyfield is a bit like Tariq Owens last year — a strong offensive rebounder who can get to the free-throw line and finish efficiently around the rim.

The defensive approach utilized by Luke Yaklich could benefit Texas more than usual in this game, as Texas Tech has one of the highest assist rates in the country, but Yaklich’s strategy tends to force one-on-one plays by limiting help defense and asking the guards to stay in front of their opponents and force them off the three-point line.

The game tips off at 3 p.m. on ESPN2. Texas has a 45-percent win probability in this game, according to KenPom.com, with a projected margin of 64-63. The good news is that the Longhorns are 4-1 in close games this season, in stark contrast to last year, but the expectation is that every possession will matter.