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Heading into arduous stretch starting with Saturday’s game vs. Baylor, Texas is reeling

Off to a 1-3 start in Big 12 play, the Longhorns face 11 ranked opponents in the final 14 games.

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Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

AUSTIN, Texas — An ugly start may only get uglier.

The Texas Longhorns are 1-3 in Big 12 play, the program’s worst start since the abysmal 2016-17 team under Shaka Smart opened 1-6 on the way to 4-14 and 11-22 overall, the lowest winning percentage since the 1983-84 team went 7-21 under Bob Weltlich. In the nation’s best basketball league, there’s no respite in sight — in fact, the Longhorns arguably blew the easiest stretch of the schedule with 11 ranked opponents looming in the final 14 games, starting with a visit from the No. 9 Baylor Bears on Saturday, the first of six straight top-25 teams Texas will face.

The season isn’t hanging on the brink, it’s fully tumbling through the void in Rodney Terry’s first full season following a road loss to West Virginia last Saturday and Wednesday’s home loss to UCF that featured the Longhorns racing out to a 22-6 start, leading by 12 at halftime, and extending the margin back to 15 points before collapsing over the final 10 minutes. As if the loss itself wasn’t bad enough, Terry compounded the struggles with an ugly confrontation of Knights players in the handshake line and an ill-advised rant in the post-game press conference about the “classless” behavior of his opponents throwing horns down after the win.

Terry, of course, has more pressing problems, like a sudden inability to protect the home court at the Moody Center, a point guard with turnover problems he can’t trust in late-game situations, a star senior forward struggling to stay out of foul trouble while a blueprint emerges for how to slow him down, a shaky defense, issues matching the physicality of opponents, and a bench that isn’t making winning plays.

Wednesday defeat by the Knights marked the first losing streak for the Longhorns since the Moody Center opened in 2022. Reported attendance was 11,235 and Terry praised the turnout after the game, but the number of empty seats was noticeable and the lack of buzz that defined the inaugural season was even more apparent as on-court results threaten to send fans spiraling into Erwin Center levels of apathy. And justifiably so.

One of the biggest problems for Texas is that Terry simply doesn’t trust junior guard Tyrese Hunter right now. Increasingly the primary ball handler for the Longhorns after senior guard Max Abmas struggled in that role, Hunter turned the ball over four times against the Knights, including two crucial turnovers as UCF surged back into the game. Terry responded by benching Hunter for the final 6:21.

The turnover problems on Wednesday weren’t isolated, either — the Iowa State transfer is averaging 3.5 turnovers per game in Big 12 play and now has a turnover rate of 24.9 percent, marked increase from 17.3 percent last season. By comparison, Marcus Carr had a turnover rate of 11.5 percent in 2022-23, an indication of the disparity between how well the Longhorns protected the basketball last season and how careless they are in this campaign.

Terry always talks about how Hunter needs to let his defense create his offense, but when that isn’t happening, Hunter has to make better decisions when he’s responsible for initiating offense.

The unevenness of Hunter as a ball handler and a scorer puts increased pressure on Dylan Disu, who has been phenomenal at times since his return from the foot injury that ended his postseason run last season, highlighted by his career-high 33-point performance against Cincinnati last week. But the senior forward has also struggled to stay on the court due to foul trouble, going five straight games with four or more fouls, including Disu’s disqualification in the loss to the Mountaineers. As a result, he only played 17 minutes against Texas Tech and 21 minutes against UCF.

“I try my hardest to stay out of foul trouble, for sure,” said Disu on Wednesday. “Just making smart plays, making good contests, not swiping at balls sometimes that I don’t need to. The biggest thing is just being very cerebral with my defense.”

Beyond getting Disu into foul trouble, the Knights found another way to slow him down — playing zone. Although UCF entered the game with an identity as a team that plays physical, man-to-man defense at an elite level, Disu’s strong start threatened to force Johnny Dawkins to remove his bigs from the game because they couldn’t hold up in one-on-one defense, transition defense, or defend Disu’s ability to hit threes in the pick-and-roll.

Instead, Dawkins went to a zone defense that was able to limit Texas to 34.5-percent shooting and six points in the paint in the second half. It stifled Disu, too. After scoring seven of the first 11 points for the Longhorns, Disu didn’t find the basket again over the game’s final 36:50.

Now No. 64 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, the Longhorns are struggling to get stops in losses. In the 12 wins for Texas, opponents have averaged 61.8 points per game on 38.3-percent shooting, including 31 percent from three-point range. In the five losses, however, the Longhorns have allowed 79.6 points per game on 49.5-percent shooting with opponents hitting at 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. Much of that disparity is due to the horrific non-conference schedule played by Texas that bolstered those defensive numbers in wins against bad opponents, but it still illustrates how many of the team’s issues stem from the inability to play the type of defense that Terry demands.

The defining run by UCF midway through the second half started with offensive rebounds that produced a quick three and made layup, snapshots into the way that the Knights dominated the glass in the second half with a 23-12 rebounding advantage over the Longhorns and a 37-22 margin overall. The 12 offensive rebounds by UCF were efficiently converted into a 15-5 edge in second-chance points.

“It’s not going to take one effort play, it’s going to take multiple effort plays to keep their team off the glass, and they imposed their will on us in that regard. They got second-chance opportunities and when they got those opportunities, they cashed in on them,” said Terry.

The lack of defensive rebounding from the Texas frontcourt is also unquestionably hurting the Longhorns.

Disu’s defensive rebounding rate as a sophomore at Vanderbilt was 26.1 percent, but it’s steadily declined in Austin from 25.4 percent to 19.5 percent to 15.2 percent this season, perhaps a result of multiple leg and foot injuries sustained by the Pflugerville product.

Senior forward Kadin Shedrick is even worse at 13.0 percent, barely better than senior guard Ithiel Horton and a career low by 4.3 percent for the Virginia transfer who underwent offseason shoulder surgeries and is now dealing with a back issue impacting his ability to play physically in the paint.

And the bench isn’t providing much for the Longhorns, either. Inserting Horton into the starting lineup against the Knights jumpstarted his production with a season-high 20 points, but none of the reserves stepped up with the Texas bench producing just seven points compared to 34 bench points for UCF. In total, the Longhorns bench has been outscored 89-19 in the last three games. Sir’Jabari Rice walked through the doors of the Moody Center on Wednesday, but it was only to watch from the sidelines with former teammate Timmy Allen. What would Terry do for a player like Rice right now?

On Saturday, Baylor makes its final trip to Austin to face Texas as a conference opponent boasting a 13-2 record against the Longhorns in the last 15 games and ranking third in the nation in three-point field-goal percentage (40.4) and fifth in offensive efficiency (120.3) while ranking second in the conference in points per game (84.8). At 14-3 and 3-1 in the Big 12, the Bears are No. 15 overall in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric with the No. 5 offense and No. 47 defense.

Star freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter leads the way for Baylor, averaging 14.8 points per game, although Kansas State held him to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting in Tuesday’s overtime win, the second time in conference play that Walter has failed to reach double digits. Three other players average double-digit scoring, including sixth man Langston Love at 11.6 points per game thanks to 47.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc.

BartTorvik.com gives Texas a 52-percent win probability with a projected score of 76-75.

How to watch

TV: ESPN

Time: 11:00 a.m. Central

Livestream: WatchESPN

Radio: The Longhorn IMG Radio Network broadcasts every Texas game statewide. Check TexasSports.com for affiliates.

Odds: Texas is an one-point favorite, according to DraftKings.

Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.