On Jan. 20, 2019, the Texas Longhorns traveled to Morgantown to face the West Virginia Mountaineers and suffered the program’s worst Big 12 loss and the worst loss of the Shaka Smart era in a humiliating 97-59 defeat.
Longhorns legend TJ Ford used two apt terms to describe the debacle — disappointing and disheartening.
It’s very disappointing and disheartening to watch the direction Texas Longhorn has now taken. I’ve never witnessed a blowout of this magnitude in BIG12 play like tonight.— TJ Ford (@tj_ford) January 21, 2020
The loss left Texas at 2-4 in conference play and seemingly provided the final impetus for Smart’s termination. But there was plenty of season left and the Horns rebounded to win five straight games late in the season. With the conference and national tournaments cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Smart kept his job.
With Texas now sitting at 9-1 and ranked No. 4 nationally in the AP Top 25 poll, the program’s highest ranking in a decade, and at No. 8 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric, it’s difficult imagining a greater narrative reversal than what has transpired over the last 50 or so weeks.
On Saturday, Texas once again travels to Morgantown to face No. 14 West Virginia in an attempt to seek redemption for last season’s loss and continue the strong start to conference play that included a historic 25-point victory in Lawrence last week against Kansas.
The game tips off at 12 p.m. Central on ESPN.
Under head coach Bob Huggins, the Mountaineers always pose a physical challenge for any opponent.
Midway through the first half last January, Texas trailed 17-13, but West Virginia went on a 28-7 run to end the first half and the blowout was on. After seeing the Longhorns fail to respond to that onslaught, Texas senior point guard Matt Coleman understands what the team needs to accomplish in Morgantown.
“The more aggressive, more physical team wins,” Coleman said on Thursday. “Just thinking back to last year — I don’t want to dwell too much on the past — but they came out a lot more aggressive, a lot more physical, they set the tone. And we found ourselves down early and it just snowballed going into the rest of the game. So just going in this year having a different mentality of being the aggressors and just competing at a high level.”
This Mountaineers team won’t quite have the same level of physicality with the recent departure of Oscar Tshiebwe, the bruising sophomore forward who formed such a formidable frontcourt with junior forward Derek Culver.
However, West Virginia remains one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, thanks largely to continued offensive rebounding prowess under Huggins, a staple of his teams over the years.
So it’s fortunate that Texas has improved on the defensive glass in recent games, led by the resurgence of senior forward Jericho Sims. In the last two games, Sims has averaged 10.5 points and 10.0 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per contest while converting 9-of-11 shots (81.8 percent).
Sims also ranks in the top-200 nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding rate as the Longhorns have generally cleaned up the glass on both ends of the floor this season — Texas features a plus-6.3 rebound margin in its first 10 contests and has posted an 8-0 mark when out-rebounding its opponent heading to Morgantown. Freshman forward Greg Brown III has helped with a top-40 national ranking in defensive rebounding rate.
After a poor start shooting from deep, Brown has also improved his consistency from beyond the arc. He missed his first 10 three-point attempts and 15 of his first 17 overall, but since then, Brown has connected on 12-of-28 attempts (42.9 percent), including 3-of-4 shooting against the Cyclones.
In an attempt to put as much length and athleticism on the court as possible, look for Texas to use more of a lineup that Smart deployed against Iowa State with Sims, Brown, and sophomore forward Kai Jones. For a program dominated by guard play under Smart, it’s an unusual look, but both Brown and Jones are shooting well enough to make defenses pay for packing the paint.
When Jones is right mentally, in particular, he provides a unique spirit on the court that Smart said is among the best he’s coached in his entire career.
“Obviously he’s a thinner guy — he’s not the strongest guy in the world,” Smart said. “But when he’s got that energy and that bounce to him and that look to him, he plays with really good toughness and strength even though he’s probably not moving a ton of weight in the weight room.”
Redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones has also heated up after a slow start to the season. In the Big 12 opener against Oklahoma State, Jones tied his career high with 22 points and then bested it against Iowa State with 23 points on 10-of-20 shooting. He still hasn’t heated up fully from distance, making only 3-of-9 three-point attempts against the Cyclones and hitting only 27.8 percent this season, but Smart believes that Jones is getting good looks and expects him to make them when they go up.
As well as Texas has been playing, the ability for Jones to truly get hot from three-point range provides some further upside for a team achieving at its highest level since Smart arrived on campus.
So it’s been a long year for the Horns as the team has developed a different attitude, allowing it to win games like it did against the Jayhawks last weekend and also remain in control on Tuesday against the Cyclones even with a subpar defensive effort in the second half.
“I think our guys definitely have more confidence to expect to win — definitely felt that on Saturday,” Smart said after the Iowa State game.
KenPom.com gives Texas a 50-percent win probability on Saturday with a 71-70 expected score.