In the midst of a three-game winning streak and coming off two consecutive comebacks from double-digit deficits, the No. 7 Texas Longhorns are in Ames on Tuesday for a matchup against the No. 12 Iowa State Cyclones.
The game pits Texas guard Tyrese Hunter against his former team months after the sophomore left Iowa State following one season during which he won Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors and was a finalist for the national defensive player of the year award. Hunter led the team in assists (4.9 apg) and steals (71) while ranking second in scoring (11.0 ppg) and minutes (32.1 mpg).
But Hunter doesn’t arrive back in Ames on a hot streak — other than a 29-point performance in the high-scoring loss to Kansas State, Hunter hasn’t scored in double digits since recording 10 points against Louisiana on Dec. 21, a stretch that includes a scoreless performance on Saturday in the win over Texas Tech. Excluding the Wildcats, Hunter is 5-of-31 shooting from the field (16.1 percent) and 2-of-16 shooting from three (12.5 percent) over the five-game stretch since facing the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Overall, Hunter is playing fewer minutes and scoring less than he did last season, in part because of persistent late-game issues with cramps, but also in recent games because New Mexico State transfer guard Sir’Jabari Rice has been more impactful on both ends of the court, notably helping finish out the last two wins with clutch makes from the free-throw line.
Perhaps more concerning, Hunter’s assist rate and steal rate are both down from last season — he hasn’t just failed to improve significantly as a scorer other than shooting 32 percent from three after hitting just 27.4 percent last season, he’s making fewer plays for his Texas teammates offensively and creating less havoc defensively.
“Guys sometimes have to play their way through situations,” interim head coach Rodney Terry said on Saturday. “Tyrese played 25 minutes today and I think he’ll find his grove here at the right time — he’s too good a player not to. He’s a high-level player and he’s a guy that we have extremely high expectations for and I know he has high expectations for himself likewise.”
Even if Hunter continues to struggle in the counting stats, Terry believes that he can make an impact in more intangible ways.
“There’s no doubt in my mind Tyrese is going to be playing at a very high level when we need him to be playing at a high level, but even when he’s not, I think his leadership out there and his experience out there really gives us a gives us a lift on both ends of the floor,” Terry said.
At the moment, the Longhorns are relying on Rice to help overcome first-half deficits. In the 18-point comeback against the Horned Frogs, all 15 of Rice’s points came in the second half, including the offensive rebound that produced two game-sealing free throws with six remaining. Against Texas Tech, 15 of Rice’s 18 points came after halftime while converting 5-of-6 free throws in the final 20 seconds to secure the victory.
If there’s a next step for Rice — and for Texas — it’s playing at a higher level in the first half to avoid those deficits.
“Obviously, I haven’t been having a good first half the past couple games, but it just happens as a player, you’ve just gotta keep pushing, just keep chipping away trying to find a way to help the team,” Rice said on Saturday.
“I scored the ball, but I just tried to help my teammates with defense in just trying to make an impact on the defensive end because I know that’s what starts our offense, and just trying to be that guy that just does whatever we need whenever we need it.”
What Texas is looking for on Wednesday is the first road win over a ranked opponent this season — because of how the non-conference schedule was constructed, the only two true road games this season so far were wins over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in Big 12 play.
The Longhorns are also trying to maintain momentum against the Cyclones with wins in five of the last seven contests and nine in the last 12.
But Iowa State will pose a significant challenge coming off a 34-point over Texas Tech in Ames and a two-point loss to No. 2 Kansas in Lawrence, not to mention holding a 14-6 advantage over the Horns at Hilton Coliseum. Under second-year head coach TJ Otzelberger, the Cyclones rank No. 13 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric, No. 81 offensively, and No. 5 defensively.
Iowa State is holding opponents to 39.8-percent shooting from the floor and 30-percent shooting from three-point range while forcing 19.4 turnovers per game that create 21.9 points per game. For Texas to keep this game close, the Horns will have to avoid live-ball turnovers that allow the Cyclones to get easy baskets in transition. Otherwise, Iowa State can get bogged down in the halfcourt.
Closing out on shooters will be a key factor in that equation, whether in transition or when the defense is set, as guards Gabe Kalscheur and Caleb Grill shoot 34.8 percent and 37.6 percent from distance, respectively, and both have over 30 made three-pointers this season. Texas experienced Kalscheur’s ability to get hot shooting from beyond the arc last season when he scored 22 points and hit 6-of-12 three-pointers in Iowa State’s 79-70 win in Ames.
How to watch
Time: 7 p.m. Central
TV: Big 12 Now/ESPN+
Odds: Iowa State is a 2.5-point favorite, according to DraftKings.