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No. 14 Texas faces ‘crossroads’ in season’s final home game against No. 17 Kansas

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After five losses in the last eight games, the Longhorns desperately need a win before finishing the regular season on the win.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the now-No. 14 Texas Longhorns blew a 19-point lead against the West Virginia Mountaineers, much of it after a verbal altercation between redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones and junior guard Courtney Ramey that started on the court and continued into the timeout.

Senior guard Matt Coleman had to physically restrain Ramey, who scored a game-high and career-high 28 points, but fouled out with 2:26 remaining.

As Texas prepares to host No. 17 Kansas on Tuesday at the Erwin Center at 8 p.m. Central on ESPN for the season’s final home game, the Longhorns have to move forward with the the type of connectedness that was noticeably missing after Ramey’s blowup.

“Absolutely it had an affect on the game,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said after the game. “Am I okay with it? No. That was a high-level game with high-level plays being made — our guys have been good in those games. I don’t know if it’s because of where we are, but those three guys (Ramey, Jones, and Coleman) have to stay connected and dialogue. Today, I didn’t think that was the case, and it definitely affected us.”

In the post-game locker room, Smart told his players that the season is now at a crossroads. After practicing on Sunday and again on Monday, Texas has had two opportunities to get connected again after blowing the chance to pick up a big win against West Virginia.

“I think the response has been good,” Smart said. “Our guys have had a lot of conversation among themselves and, again, I really appreciate the passion that they have for basketball. To me, the opposite of that is apathy and that’s about the worst quality that you can have in a competitive setting. So I really appreciate their passion. Again, it’s our job to make sure that that passion is directed in the right way.”

Before the game, Texas will honor four seniors — Coleman, guard Jase Febres, forward Royce Hamm Jr., forward Jericho Sims. Due to the NCAA’s eligibility freeze, all of those players have an opportunity to return for a fifth season, but if any of them decline, the Kansas game gives their parents a chance to watch them in person at the Erwin Center for a last time with fans once again allowed to attend.

“I’m grateful for the fact that we’re going to be able to have fans tomorrow,” Smart said. “That makes a big difference, even though we’re not allowed to have fans like we normally do all around the country, but it still makes a big difference. And quite honestly, just for our guys’ families to be able to see them really grateful for that, particularly on Senior Night.”

Kansas hasn’t dealt with the same type of COVID-19 issues or weather-related disruptions as Texas in the seven weeks since the Longhorns went into Allen Fieldhouse and dealt Bill Self the biggest home defeat of his Jayhawks tenure in the 25-point blowout. There was plenty of adversity, though, as Kansas lost five of seven games during a stretch from mid-January to early February.

Since then, however, strong play from junior forward David McCormack and improved defense has helped Kansas win five straight games.

McCormack has scored in double digits in four of those contests, including a 23-point, 10-rebound effort against Oklahoma State and 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting with eight rebounds on Saturday in Lawrence against Texas Tech.

Meanwhile, as the Longhorns defense has struggled to rank in the top 100 nationally over the last 10 games in adjusted defensive efficiency, the Jayhawks rank No. 9 over that stretch, including dominant performances against the Wildcats and Cyclones.

Of course, those are two of the worst teams in the conference, but the adjusted numbers don’t lie, so Texas is set to face a significant challenge offensively if those trends continue for for Kansas.

Some of that pressure falls on players like Andrew Jones, who went 1-for-11 shooting in the second half against West Virginia and had a go-ahead three-point attempt rim out with four seconds left.

Better play from sophomore forward Kai Jones would help, too, especially on the defensive glass. In the last three games, Jones only has five rebounds in 72 minutes — one every 14.4 minutes.

Fortunately for Texas, Sims is playing at a high level, averaging 12.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game while converting 11-of-14 field goals in the last two games. Against West Virginia, Sims was dominant early in the game, but sat for most of the first half due to foul trouble, something Texas can’t afford against the 265-pound McCormack.

KenPom.com gives the Longhorns a 59-percent win probability with a projected score of 71-69.