For the first time in more than six weeks, fans of the No. 5 Texas Longhorns can watch head coach Shaka Smart’s team in action at the Erwin Center.
The loosening of restrictions against in-person attendance comes to an opportune time for the Longhorns — the No. 2 Baylor Bears come to Austin on Tuesday for a 6 p.m. Central tip on ESPN in the first top-six home matchup in 17 years.
At 16-0, Baylor enters the game competing against Gonzaga as the top team in the country. Regardless of whether the Bears or the Bulldogs deserve that nod, it’s clear that there’s a massive chasm between Gonzaga, Baylor, and everyone else.
“Honestly, I don’t know which one’s better. I mean, they’re both just phenomenal,” Texas head coach Smart said on Monday in his return from COVID-19 isolation.
So Tuesday’s matchup represents a huge opportunity for Smart’s Texas team, which will play its second game in 17 days after practicing with full availability on Sunday for the first time in nearly three weeks — if the Longhorns want to compete with the Bears for a regular-season Big 12 title, a win on Tuesday is a virtual necessity.
In December, the Longhorns were scheduled to open the conference season against the Bears in Waco on the 13st. Due to COVID-19 issues within the Bears program, the game was postponed and has not yet been rescheduled. Smart viewed that postponement as a missed opportunity to see where his Texas team was at that point in the season.
“We would know a lot more just having played that game,” Smart said. “Every time you don’t get to play a game, it takes away from that opportunity.”
With three of the last four Texas games canceled or postponed, along with five total this season, a quarter of the scheduled games, the Longhorns have missed out on a lot of those chances to show the type of linear progression that a normal season can make more apparent.
“It’s just much more disjointed of a season because of some of the disruptions,” Smart said.
Despite the disruptions, expect a game played by both sides from the opening tip with the intensity of knowing that each possession could determine the outcome.
Rebounding from the recent adversity won’t be easy for Texas against the nation’s No. 3 defense in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric. Once defined by head coach Scott Drew’s preference for a 2-3 zone, the Bears now employ a version of the no-middle defense that forces turnovers on 26 percent of opponent’s possessions, No. 5 nationally.
Senior Mark Vital’s toughness combines with sophomore Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s length, size, and motor to form one of the nation’s most intimidating interior duos. On the perimeter, junior Davion Mitchell serves as one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders.
When Baylor has the basketball, the Bears boast the nation’s No. 3 offense in adjusted efficiency thanks to high-level three-point shooting — Drew’s team ranks first nationally in hitting 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. No other Power Five teams is hitting at a rate above 40 percent.
Rebounding misses by Baylor is almost as difficult thanks to Vital and Tchamwa Tchatchoua, known as Everyday John, as the Bears rank No. 4 nationally in rebounding 38.6 percent of their own misses. Those offensive rebounds help create good looks from three-point range.
The scoring and playmaking from the guards provide the key to the Baylor offense. Junior Jared Butler leads the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game and has a credible argument as the best player in college basketball. Along with Mitchell, the lead guards for the Bears don’t just score, they facilitate for their teammates, too — Butler averages 5.4 assists per game and Mitchell averages 5.9 assists per game. In the backcourt, senior MaCio Teague is a beneficiary at 15 points per game.
“For having a team with so many no guards that are really good with the ball in their hands, they just do a terrific job playing team basketball, sharing with each other, creating for each other,” Smart said.
So beyond the statistics, Smart believes that high-level team chemistry and team culture help contribute to Baylor’s incredible success this season.
“Their guys really seem to really enjoy playing with one another — they have a passion for winning and winning plays,” Smart said. “It’s one thing to be excited about when the ball goes in and the score is lopsided in your favor, but they just have a passion for making the plays that go into creating that.”
Baylor has a 68-percent win probability in Tuesday’s game, according to KenPom.com, with a projected margin of 76-71.