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Texas tries to keep playing like a ‘high-level team’ in road matchup vs. No. 21 BYU

The Longhorns travel to Provo to face the Cougars in another big game after two straight wins over ranked opponents.

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NCAA Basketball: Houston at Brigham Young Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Texas Longhorns the team that blew a 16-point lead at home against the UCF Knights? Or the team that upset the then-No. 9 Baylor Bears at the Moody Center and then went on the road for a convincing rivalry win against the No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners?

Saturday’s trip to Provo to face the No. 21 BYU Cougars may help head coach Rodney Terry’s team solidify its identity in conference play after a 1-3 start before reeling off those two impressive wins that have the Longhorns back on the positive side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“It was just all about staying together and I think that’s been the main thing throughout this whole season is learning how to stay together, learning how to play together,” Texas sophomore forward Dillon Mitchell said on Thursday. “So I think that’s something that we’re getting a hold of — we’ve just got to have that next-game mentality.”

Learning to play together has been a big area of growth for the Longhorns in recent games after integrating senior forward Dylan Disu back into the team after he missed the first eight games of the season due to injury. In particular, Disu’s ability in the pick-and-roll has created better spacing and forced opponents to make difficult decisions about how to defend that action.

“With Disu moving out, it takes the big man out there and it opens up a lot more space for me to crash down and get rebounds. And then also at the same time, when Disu’s out there, he’s able to make smart plays with the ball where he could drop me a pass off a cut or anything like that,” said Mitchell.

“So him being able to space the floor has helped our team a lot because it moves that big man out of the paint and allows guys like Chendall [Weaver] to get downhill and not have to worry about the big guy being down there. So it helps our team a lot.”

Mitchell and other players are also developing a better rapport on the court with senior guard Max Abmas, who scored a game-high 22 points in Tuesday’s win over Oklahoma. One play with Mitchell stood out in the second half. Leading by three points, Abmas passed the ball to Mitchell from the sideline to the wing and keep moving, using a natural screen by the bigger player and getting the ball back for a big three that forced a timeout by the Sooners.

After Disu forced a steal that led to a dunk by junior guard Tyrese Hunter and Abmas found Disu for a three, the Longhorns led by 11 points and never looked back.

Making multi-effort plays has been a point of emphasis for Texas, too, including Terry removing the pads during rebounding builds to force his team to go “bone-on-bone.”

“We’re going to make mistakes — RT preaches that you’re going to make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. And so to win games, you don’t have to play perfect, but you’ve got to play with effort, you’ve got to play with heart, and you’ve got to go out there and be physical. The big 12 is a tough conference. There’s not going to be one easy game. Every game is gonna come down to one possession,” said Mitchell.

“So it’s about going out there and playing hard. The team who wants it more, the team who goes out there and makes those winning plays, diving on the floor, getting 50-50 balls, now that’s what it comes down to — having that want to, playing with a lot of effort and physicality.”

When the Horns were 1-3, Terry told his team that they could easily be 3-1 and simply needed to buckle down to the details to play more consistent basketball over longer periods of time.

“We played like a high-level team the last two games ourselves,” said Terry.

Like the Sooners, the Cougars were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference standings before emerging as a top-25 team, ranking No. 9 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric with the No. 12 offense and the No. 23 defense. At 14-5 overall, Big 12 play has been a slog for BYU at 2-4 with consecutive losses to No. 24 Texas Tech in Lubbock and at home to No. 4 Houston, only the second of the season for the Cougars in Provo, where head coach Mark Pope’s team possesses a significant homecourt advantage in front of nearly 20,000 fans.

BYU is fueled by an elite offense that likes to spread the court and moves the ball quickly, taking over half its shots from three-point range, taking advantage of that spacing to create quality looks inside the arc — the Cougars make 59.1 percent of two-point shots, fifth nationally, and rank 10th with an effective field-goal percentage of 56.7 percent. BYU’s assist rate of 65.9 percent ranks third nationally. On the offensive glass, the Cougars rebound 34.9 percent of its misses, No. 31 in the country.

On the defensive end, BYU rarely allows offensive rebounds and defend the three-point line effectively with opponents shooting less than 30 percent from distance.

Five players average double figures in scoring, led by guard Jaxson Robinson at 13.7 points per game, who is also the team leader in three-point attempts with 128. Guard Trevin Knell leads the team in three-point makes at 50 thanks to hitting at a rate of 45.0 percent, helping him average 12.4 points per game. In the guard-centric offense for the Cougars, four of the five players who average more than 10 points per game are guards.

On the interior, BYU features leading rebounder Noah Waterman, who will play a big role in pick-and-roll defense on Disu, undersized forward Fousseyeni Troare, and Charlotte transfer Ally Khalifa, a strong passer but less mobile big who may have trouble staying on the court when Disu is in the game.

For Texas, heading on the road to face the shooting ability of BYU created an emphasis on communication in practice on Thursday.

“This is a big talking game,” said Mitchell. “BYU is a team that can really shoot the three ball and they have a lot of movement up top. They have a big guy who can really pass the ball, which gives them an advantage. So it’s about talking. I think that’s the biggest key and I’ve seen a lot of talking today.”

BYU leads the all-time series 4-2 with an 86-82 win in the last meeting in Kansas City in 2013. BartTorvik.com gives the Cougars an 80-percent win probability with a projected score of 80-71.

How to watch

TV: ESPN2

Time: 1:00 p.m. Central

Livestream: WatchESPN

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

Odds: BYU is a seven-point favorite, according to DraftKings.

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