With losses in four of the last five games and three straight, the No. 13 Texas Longhorns face a crucial week, starting with Tuesday’s game in Manhattan against the Kansas State Wildcats at 7 p.m. Central on ESPN+.
Texas head coach Shaka Smart knew that the Longhorns would face significant adversity at some point in the season and it arrived in the last month with Smart and multiple players missing time after positive COVID-19 tests.
“The difference between the teams that really, really finish strong and have a very, very successful season at the end of the day and the ones that don’t are the ones that come closer together through adversity, through challenges, and we’re kind of in the midst of that right now.”
Since beating West Virginia on a last-second shot by redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones, the only win for Texas came at home against Kansas State. Losses to Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor, and Oklahoma State have put a season that began with 10 wins in the first 11 game at a crossroads.
Fortunately for the Longhorns, the schedule lightens at a critical time — the Wildcats are 1-10 in Big 12 play and in the midst of a 10-game losing streak. So facing Bruce Weber’s team will provide an opportunity not just to get back in the win column, but also improve in several areas.
Against Oklahoma State, Smart wasn’t happy with the pace that his lead guards played with — Texas had 15 fast-break points, but only turned 18 steals into 22 points off turnovers. Fatigue was a potential factor with senior guard Matt Coleman playing 48 minutes and sophomore guard Courtney Ramey playing 47 minutes. Neither played well, as the two combined for 5-of-29 shooting from the field and 1-of-13 shooting from three-point range.
So getting back on track offensively is a big point of emphasis in Manhattan against a Wildcats team that ranks No. 222 in adjusted defensive efficiency and allows opponents to shoot 38.8 percent from beyond the arc. The Longhorns shot 14.3 percent from distance against the Cowboys.
“I don’t think a lack of urgency at all, actually, I would probably go more on the other end of I didn’t think we played very confidently on offense against Oklahoma State,” Smart said. “So it was almost more like being being overly hesitant or playing with avoidance, because of the urgency and the desire to win. But I think that, again, I liked the way that our guys responded after the game.”
As poorly as the three lead guards played against Oklahoma State, sophomore forward Kai Jones and freshman forward Greg Brown III struggled, too. After starting the season with extraordinarily efficient play, Jones tried to do too much and committed five turnovers. Brown turned the ball over four times as defenses are increasingly helping on his drives to put pressure on playmaking ability that hasn’t developed yet — he has three assists against 36 turnovers this season.
In practice, footwork has been a point of emphasis for Brown dating back to before he even committed and Smart saw flashes on Friday of his ability to make plays for his teammates off the bounce. Now it’s a matter of carrying over that improvement to the games.
One area where Smart was pleased with the performance in Stillwater was on defense. After a poor effort against Baylor last week, Texas was active in recording the season-high 18 steals. Now the Longhorns defense will have a chance to build on the strong performance against the Cowboys that included 48 total deflections — the Wildcats turn the ball over on 23.1 percent of all possessions, with more than half coming on steals by opponents.
KenPom.com gives Texas a 92-percent win probability with an expected score of 75-60.