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No. 6 Texas looks to bounce back with road trip to Oklahoma State

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The Longhorns have lost three of the last four games after a 10-1 start following significant adversity from COVID-19.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Austin American Statesman-USA TO

The No. 6 Texas Longhorns put an undefeated road record on the line Saturday in Stillwater against the Oklahoma State Cowboys — head coach Shaka Smart’s team is 5-0 away from the Erwin Center this season. The game tips off at 2 p.m. Central on ABC.

The road trip across the Red River comes as the Longhorns have dropped two games in a row and three of the last four as adversity from the novel coronavirus halted the program’s momentum after a 10-1 start. Smart himself dealt with “significant complications” when he tested positive for COVID-19 recently and Texas went 19 days without having the full team available to practice. Three games were cancelled or postponed at a time when the Longhorns were playing excellent basketball.

As Texas seeks to regain that momentum, the first priority for Smart is the same priority as always — focusing on the defensive end of the court. In Tuesday’s loss to No. 2 Baylor, Texas allowed 58.6-percent shooting as the Longhorns struggled to stop the basketball, over helped at times, and allowed star Bears guards Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell to score 48 points on 19-of-31 shooting (61.3 percent), including 8-of-15 from three-point range (53.3 percent).

A positive test for junior guard Courtney Ramey, who said that he was asymptomatic, resulted in two weeks off and significantly impacted his conditioning. On the defensive end against Baylor, that created some difficulties against Butler and Mitchell.

“I just felt like they were very comfortable. I don’t think we made it hard enough, starting with Butler and Mitchell,” Ramey said. “I feel like when you allow good players to feel comfortable early in the game, it just carries on the whole game. They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of contested shots over bigs, over guards. So once you get in a groove as a good player, you feel like basket is huge and once you feel like that’s hard to stop.”

Redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones pointed out his own mistakes after the game, ranging from poor defensive rotations, to poor closeouts, not forcing misses, poor one-on-one efforts, and a failure to secure 50-50 balls.

“We’ve got to get way better on defense and it starts with flying around and helping each other,” Smart said in his post-game interview.

On offense, Jones has largely been lights out in conference play. Against Baylor, he single-handedly kept the team within striking distance for much of the game with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including hitting on 4-of-9 three-point attempts. In eight Big 12 games, the Texas guard is averaging a team-best 19 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game while converting 47.9 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three-point range.

Oklahoma State enters the game with wins in four of the last six contests, but coming off a disappointing three-point loss to TCU. Unlike the Bears, the Cowboys don’t have the same high-level three-point shooting ability or the defensive acumen to quickly turn turnovers into points on the other end.

But head coach Mike Boynton’s team does have one of the best players in the country in guard Cade Cunningham. After defending Cunningham well early in the 77-74 Longhorns win over the Cowboys to open conference play six weeks ago, it will once again fall on the Texas guards to keep Cunningham from being in a position to single-handedly win the game late in the second half.

In particular, Cunningham is now shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range this season — after defending the arc well throughout most of the 2020-21, Texas needs to get back to limiting clean looks from distance.

Oklahoma State freshman forward Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe has also emerged as a force in recent games, averaging 15.8 points and 9.5 rebounds on 57.8 percent shooting over the last four contests thanks to 2.7 offensive rebounds per game. In fact, after overall adjusted efficiency, the offensive rebounding rate for the Cowboys is the team’s biggest strength on that end of the floor.

Most importantly, Ramey believes that Texas simply needs to get back in the winning mindset that it had before all the adversity struck.

“So we’ve got to go Oklahoma State and stay with the mindset of just doing whatever it takes to win — we can’t be perfect,” Ramey said. “There’s going to be mistakes throughout the game, we just can’t let our mistakes just build up and build up, that’s when a lot of teams go on big runs.”