After two games on the road, the No. 13 Texas Longhorns return to the Erwin Center on Saturday to face off against the TCU Horned Frogs at 1 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network.
Less than a month ago, the Longhorns were scheduled to travel to Fort Worth to play the Horned Frogs, but TCU head coach Jamie Dixon tested positive for COVID-19 and the game was postponed. The conference has not yet announced a makeup date.
The home game kicks off a defining stretch of five games in 11 days for Texas before the Longhorns finish the regular season in Lubbock against the Red Raiders. KenPom.com currently projects a 4-2 close for head coach Shaka Smart’s team with BracketMatrix.com tracking the Horns as between a No. 3 and No. 4 seed in current projections.
For the team to accomplish its goals of a run in the NCAA tournament, that seeding will be crucially important, especially avoiding a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Gonzaga as a four seed.
Tuesday’s win over Kansas State broke a three-game losing streak for Texas and junior guard Courtney Ramey is hopeful that the performance was a sign that the team is regaining its rhythm after a disruptive stretch of positive COVID-19 tests and cancelled or postponed games.
“I feel like we’re starting to click again, starting to get our groove back, and we just have to make sure we have a good day of practice today just to carry over tomorrow,” Ramey said on Friday.
Less than seven minutes into the second half against the Wildcats, the Longhorns had opened up a 17-point lead, but then allowed a Kansas State run down the stretch that forced Texas to make its free throws in the final moments to hold off the furious comeback. Despite playing on a 10-game losing streak, the Wildcats had enough confidence to narrow that lead largely because the Longhorns didn’t defend well early in the game.
“We just didn’t look like the same team for the rest of the game, so I feel like the biggest thing is to stay consistent because we had games where we had teams down, and we kept them down. So it’s basically just trying to repeat those performances, which is hard because those teams are good, too, and they’re trying to fight back,” Ramey said. “When we get teams down, just keep them down — I think that’s the biggest improvement we can make.”
Ramey believes that the inability for the whole team to practice together for 19 days resulted in some changes to the roles that players had earlier in the season, contributing to the inconsistency of a team that hasn’t played well on offense and defense in the same game in weeks. Rotation changes can produce frustration, too, like the post-game Twitter outburst from senior forward Royce Hamm Jr. after he didn’t see the court against Kansas State.
Along with his teammates, Ramey reached out to Hamm, who apologized.
“We all believe in him, and he knows his role,” Ramey said. “I know, being a basketball player, the most recent time I talked to him was like, keep it in circle next time.”
Meanwhile, Texas freshman forward Greg Brown III played one of the best games of his young career against Kansas State, scoring 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds in on 6-of-8 shooting, including a career-high 4-of-5 three-point makes, one of which came with three minutes remaining after the Wildcats cut the Longhorns lead to 68-64. Brown also dished out a career-high two assists in his 24 minutes of action.
Had Brown avoided foul trouble thanks to his second technical foul in two games, he could have had an even bigger impact.
“If he can play 30 minutes then that really, really helps us, but then you’ve got the technical foul, some foul trouble in the first half,” Smart said after the Kansas State game. “We’re just gonna have to stop getting technical files, basically, it’s pretty simple — just not say anything to the refs and not stare down the opposing team.”
TCU enters the contest on a two-game winning streak with narrow victories over Oklahoma State and Iowa State by a total of six points following a five-game losing streak that started with three blowout losses.
Leading the Horned Frogs in scoring are junior guard RJ Nembhard (17.1 points per game) and freshman guard Mike Miles (14.8 points per game), who replaces Desmond Bane as the team’s best and most prolific three-point shooter (42.7 percent). Both do a solid job of drawing fouls, presenting a challenge for Texas senior guard Matt Coleman, who only played 24 minutes against Kansas State due to foul trouble.
Down low, junior center Kevin Samuel is scoring 9.4 points per game on 61.7-percent shooting and grabbing 8.8 rebounds per contest. By rebounding 16.2 percent of all TCU misses, Samuel has the No. 10 offensive rebounding rate in the country.
Overall, the Horned Frogs are better offensively than defensively, thanks in part to a limited ability to force turnovers, but shoot the ball well from distance and get some second-chance opportunities thanks to Samuel. Turnovers are a problem, though, and represent an area where the Longhorns can take advantage after forcing a season-high 48 deflections last week against the Cowboys.
KenPom.com gives Texas an 86-percent win probability with an expected score of 77-65.