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No. 20 Texas struggling to prove it can handle success

Far too often this season, Chris Beard’s team has responded to a big win with a poor performance.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Baylor Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting with the four other Texas Longhorns starters at the Ferrell Center podium following a 17-point loss to the Baylor Bears on Saturday, senior guard Courtney Ramey shook his head and stared at the floor, his body language revealing his continued contemplation of the unfortunate reality he’d just verbalized after fielding the first post-game question.

“They came ready to play and we didn’t,” Ramey said. “We let the Kansas game be our championship. We talked about it ever since that game — we needed this game just to stay in the race. They wanted it more. It just showed tonight. I think all 13 players can say we played soft today and they didn’t.”

With only six games remaining in the regular season, Ramey understands the urgency to gain a higher level of consistency.

“It just hurts because we don’t have too many more opportunities to play. If we just keep letting success dictate our season and following it with a bad game, our season’s going to end shortly,” Ramey added.

After facing a weak non-conference schedule, the tendency towards complacency after important wins began during Big 12 play. Texas took care of business after two short-handed teams, West Virginia at home and then Kansas State on the road, before suffering a 13-point road loss to Oklahoma State. Three days later, the Longhorns bounced back with a 14-point home win against the rival Sooners, only to drop an away game to the Cyclones and a home game to the Wildcats in a one-point loss. An emotional win over Tennessee in the return of former head coach Rick Barnes capped three straight victories before Texas was thrashed in the emotional return of current head coach Chris Beard to Texas Tech. And then the Kansas game led into the Baylor blowout.

“I think from where I stand, we’re a team that hasn’t proven that we can handle some success,” Beard said.

So Saturday’s loss was hardly an anomaly in Beard’s first season. And those issues have been a subject of conversation with the team.

“We talked about it. It’s not like we’re unaware of the situation. It’s happened before to us, a couple times this season,” Texas senior guard Marcus Carr said. “We got to find a way to make the next step.”

If early-season losses to Gonzaga and Seton Hall were an indicator that a team full of transfers still needed to come together and gel, Carr doesn’t believe that’s an acceptable excuse after 12 conference games and 25 games overall.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of getting to know each other any more,” Carr said. “We’ve been playing together since the summer, we know each other very well. It’s just something that we’ve got to do — we’ve got to figure it out.”

Some trends have become apparent — when Texas is playing well, they’re the aggressor on both ends of the court, playing stifling defense and getting to the foul line by demanding calls. In losses, the Longhorns have allowed opponents to be more aggressive, frustrating Texas with their length and athleticism. Against Baylor, a fadeaway close to the basket by junior forward Dylan Disu when he had a potential dunk was emblematic of the team’s softness. The Bears finished the game with seven blocked shots and out-rebounded the Longhorns by 10.

“You know, I didn’t see Baylor shooting a lot of fadeaway shots,” Beard said. “I saw them going right through us.”

Texas was able to beat Kansas by almost completely taking star guard Ochai Agbaji out of the game by using Ramey to faceguard him. Agbaji only scored 11 points, had a critical late turnover, and couldn’t get the ball on a late possession after the Longhorns took the lead. The Jayhawks turned it over as Agbaji was forced to become a spectator.

Against Baylor, however, Texas struggled to stop multiple players. Guard Adam Flagler scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-5 shooting from three-point range. Flagler was consistently open in part because of the floor game played by fellow guard James Akinjo, who was able to get downhill against Texas defenders and score, get the free-throw line, or find teammates, finishing with seven assists. Guards Kendall Brown and Matthew Mayer also combined with forward Flo Thamba to each score 10 points, with Thamba adding four blocks as a rim protector.

Texas players often remain inconsistent from game to game, too. While the team’s depth means that multiple players are capable of stepping up in any given contest, the responsibility to play well each game falls on leaders like Carr and senior forward Timmy Allen. Carr was 1-of-5 shooting for eight points after dishing to Allen for the game-winning basket against Kansas and Allen was 3-of-8 shooting for eight points. Junior forward Tre Mitchell followed up his best performance of the season — 17 points, including 10 straight points during a stretch in the first half — with two points on Saturday, failing to score until a layup shortly before the final buzzer.

Predictably, the notoriously fiery Ramey sees the solution as the players demanding more from each other and stepping on each other’s toes instead of trying to be friends.

“That’s not how you win national championships with performances like that,” Ramey said. “Each performance that we have, when we have success, we follow it up with a bad performance. Champions don’t act like that, so it’s about time that we start looking each other in the eyes and just grow up and be the team that we’re supposed to be, that we all came together to be.”