For the first time in the Shaka Smart era, the Texas Longhorns will have a top-10 matchup in the AP poll — the No. 9 Horns travel to Lawrence on Saturday for a big-time game against the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks.
The game tips off at 11 a.m. Central on ESPN2.
In the last several weeks, Texas has missed out on contests against No. 2 Baylor and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, giving the Longhorns plenty of time to prepare for the Jayhawks with nearly two weeks off since the team’s last game against the Cowboys.
For the highest-rated team since Smart arrived on the Forty Acres nearly six years ago, the season’s first true road game against Kansas represents a significant opportunity for Texas to prove that it belongs among the best teams in the conference and, therefore, the best teams in the nation.
Beating head coach Bill Self’s team at Allen Fieldhouse will require different tactics than previous seasons. Previously an offense that heavily relied on having two big men to run high-low actions, Self’s roster has forced him to pivot to a different approach.
“There’s times where they’ve got five perimeter guys on the floor with Jalen Wilson, who’s a terrific guy that I guess you would think of more as like a fourth three playing the five, and then now they’ve got five guys that are three-point shooting threats and threats to put the ball on the floor,” Smart said on Friday.
With the loss of Devon Dotson, Kansas doesn’t have a primary playmaker this season — senior guard Marcus Garrett leads the team with 3.6 points per game — but it’s a group that can spread the floor and knock down shots from beyond the arc.
In that regard, the Jayhawks provide a challenge to the Longhorns that Smart’s team hasn’t really faced this season. Previous big wins against Indiana and North Carolina in the Maui Invitational were against teams that shot the ball poorly from distance.
For the season, Texas ranks No. 27 nationally in holding opponents to 27-percent shooting from three-point range. Like last season under Luke Yaklich, the Horns force opponents into one-on-one basketball by ranking third nationally in assists per made field goal and deter three-point shots in generals at sixth in the country in three-point attempts to field-goal attempts.
So Saturday’s game in Lawrence will feature strength on strength — Kansas ranks No. 32 in three-point accuracy at 38.6 percent on the season. The top three shooters in three-point attempts, Wilson, Ochai Ogbaji, and Christian Braun, are all hitting at 38 percent and above, with Ogbaji at 44.4 percent and Braun at 43.1 percent.
Those are remarkable numbers that will challenge the Texas defense most significantly in transition, an area in which the Longhorns struggled against the Cowboys, but also after offensive rebounds. Despite playing some smaller lineups, Kansas ranks No. 24 nationally in rebounding 36.3 percent of their misses on offense, so Texas has to win on the defensive glass in order to limit those easy looks from second chances.
One of the additional questions for the Longhorns is whether freshman forward Greg Brown III can continue his recent success. In the last three games, Brown has averaged 19.7 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game, and 2.7 blocks per game. Over that time, he’s hit 38 percent from three-point range on 21 attempts, a remarkable improvement over his cold start from beyond the arc.
“The emphasis with him is to continue to grow and continuing to do everything you can to make your team win in the moment,” Smart said. “If you can focus on making your team win, then a lot of good things are going to happen for you.”
Those areas primarily include rebounding on both ends, providing strong man and help-side defense to continue blocking shots, and running the court to create easy opportunities on the offensive end. Controlling those areas is much easier than shooting well from beyond the arc, which is still a part of the game that Brown could simply be growing into. The question is whether his poor shooting early was a bigger anomaly than his hot shooting of late.
The good news for Texas is that Brown’s development reduces the pressure on the three lead guards to all play well at the same time — junior Courtney Ramey didn’t score against Oklahoma State and senior Matt Coleman only hit 2-of-11 shots from the field, but Texas still won.
In the past, the Longhorns typically needed two of those three guards to play well to win, but one of the developments as those players have gained experience is how someone like Ramey can impact the game without scoring or even impacting the box score at all. That’s because Ramey played good defense against freshman phenom Cade Cunningham and provided his typical level of leadership.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a guys who is so impactful on his teammates with the aura that he brings to the things that he says, the way he interacts with guys,” Smart said. “Courtney does a lot of things behind the scenes that most of our guys really, really appreciate that coaches might not even see unless they’re really, really, really closely looking. He’s a very good teammate.”
For a Texas team with big aspirations this season, the hope is that Brown’s rapid improvement and the ability of players like Ramey to positively impact the game even when they aren’t playing well will provide a boost in a huge game — t’s the first AP top-10 matchup for the Longhorns in regular-season conference play since beating the Jayhawks in Lawrence in 2011.
One key factor for Texas is the players who won’t be available, as Smart acknowledged that one or two players may not be able to travel to Lawrence due to COVID protocols. Since Smart wasn’t able to disclose who those players might be, it’s difficult to know the extent to which those absences could impact the outcome.
KenPom.com forecasts a 39-percent win probability for Texas with a projected score of 70-67.