The urgency of conference play is upon the Texas Longhorns, justifiably dropped not only from the AP Top 25 in which Rodney Terry’s team lingered inexplicably for too long, but also dropped from ESPN’s Bracketology altogether, not even among the first eight teams out following Saturday’s awful loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown.
“A big game is the next game because it’s the game right in front of us and that’s the mentality we’ve always had — it’s really centered around our culture and who we are,” said Terry on Tuesday.
The inability to take any game for granted heightens the stakes of Wednesday’s game against the UCF Knights at the Moody Center, where the Longhorns lost their second game since it opened when Big 12 play started 11 days ago against the Red Raiders.
And the urgency for Terry surrounds how he can coax better play from the supporting cast around senior guard Max Abmas and senior forward Dylan Disu, who combined for 50 of the 73 points scored by Texas against West Virginia.
After scoring 20 bench points in the loss to Texas Tech — and holding a 20-11 advantage in that category — Texas only managed four bench points against Cincinnati and nine bench points in Morgantown.
It’s gotten bad enough that Terry reverted to discussing previous bench contributions this season, largely against one of the nation’s worst non-conference schedules, and contributions that don’t show up in the box score
Even before senior forward Kaden Shedrick missed the Cincinnati game with back spasms, he’s been inconsistent this season, scoring two points in 29 minutes against Texas Tech and one point in 20 minutes against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. At least Disu has assumed the starting role and is playing at high level, taking pressure off of Shedrick.
Evaluations by the medical staff revealed that there isn’t any structural damage to Shedrick’s back — the challenge is getting him healthy enough to play with the physicality necessary to hold position inside at 231 pounds.
The bigger problem is at the starting small forward position currently held by sixth-year senior Brock Cunningham, who has scored nine points while committing 19 fouls over the last five games, disqualifying himself from both losses in conference play.
“We need him to make open shots for us and stretch the floor,” said Terry.
Terry and the coaching staff have evaluated moving Cunningham back into his traditional bench role — he’d started only four times in 113 career games over five seasons entering the 2023-24 campaign.
But who would replace Cunningham in the starting lineup?
Senior guard IT Horton started early in the season and got off to a strong start, scoring nine or more points in each of the first seven games before reaching double figures only once in the last nine contests, including failing to score at all in each of the last three games. In previous stops at Delaware, Pitt, and UCF, Horton was a consistent scorer, averaging between 8.9 and 13.2 points per game, shooting under 40 percent from the floor in the last three seasons, but making up for it by hitting at a rate of 37.5 percent overall beyond the arc.
Perhaps moving Horton back into the startling lineup would jumpstart his game, especially from the beyond the arc — he’s only made multiple three-pointers once since hitting two against Texas State in late November, the area where the New Jersey native’s history suggests he’s most capable of contributing.
“IT, we want him to be a guy that makes shots for us,” said Terry. “That’s why we recruited him and we have him on our roster right now.”
A less likely option is sophomore guard Chendall Weaver, the UTA transfer who possesses similar attributes to Cunningham as an active player, but is shorter and more athletic.
“We need Chendall Weaver to come in and be a guy who brings an energy and a defensive mindset and a lot of times scores off his defense,” said Terry, perhaps tipping off the plans to keep Weaver in his role off the bench.
In a familiar refrain, success or failure for Texas goes back to the defensive end — beyond surviving poor defensive performances against Louisville and LSU, the other bad games on that end of the floor have resulted in losses.
“We’ve shown flashes, some pretty good flashes at times when we’ve been really good defensively and we’ve had some basketball we have to continue to get better,” said Terry. “We’ve had to continue to work on that transition defense, getting back and getting set and not giving up baskets in transition, but we’ve had games to where against Cincinnati, we did a great job of taking away transition offense.”
Wednesday’s matchup between Texas and UCF is not only the first meeting between the two schools as Big 12 opponents, it’s the first meeting overall. Head coach Johnny Dawkins has the Knights at 10-5 overall and 1-2 in conference play with a home upset of the Jayhawks last week. Ranked No. 79 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric, UCF has the No. 193 offense and the No. 16 defense.
So this is a defense-heavy team for the Golden Knights — they rank No. 3 nationally in blocked-shots percentage at 16.3, have the No. 8 forced turnover rate at 23.1, slot No. 35 in effective field-goal percentage at 45.8, and rank in the top 50 in allowing offensive rebounds. Averaging 9.3 steals per game, UCF is active defensively and likes to turn defense into offense.
When the Knights can’t get easy points in transition, it’s a struggle for UCF, shooting just 31.6 percent from three and 68.8 percent from the free-throw line. The team’s adjusted tempo does rank in the top-100 nationally and the Golden Knights crash the glass offensively effectively and get to the free-throw line at a strong rate, but they also tend towards one-on-one basketball with a poor assist rate and some issues turning the ball over.
Ball State transfer guard Jaylin Sellers handles the bulk of the scoring at 17.5 points per game, but he’s also struggling from beyond the arc at 26.7 percent and has more turnovers than assists. The poor assist-to-turnover ratio extends to guard Darius Johnson, the team leader in made three-pointers and assists who has 53 assists and 52 turnovers thanks to a turnover rate close to 25 percent. At 14.3 points per game, Johnson is only other player besides Sellers who averages in double digits and is dangerous attacking downhill in the halfcourt or transition even though those dribble drives often end poorly for UCF.
BartTorvik.com gives Texas a 74-percent win probability with a projected margin of 72-66.
How to watch
TV: Longhorn Network
Time: 7:00 p.m. Central
Odds: Texas is an 8.5-point favorite, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.