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Where No. 20 Texas stands opening Big 12 play against Texas Tech on Saturday

Assessing the non-conference performance by the Longhorns and previewing the conference opener against the Red Raiders.

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NCAA Basketball: Texas-Arlington at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

After posting an 11-2 record through a non-conference schedule that ranks No. 312 nationally, the No. 20 Texas Longhorns open the program’s final season in Big 12 play on Saturday against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at the Moody Center.

In two games against ranked opponents, Texas fell to No. 5 UConn 81-71 in the Empire Classic in New York and was blown out 86-65 by No. 8 Marquette in Wisconsin. Against a weak schedule that didn’t feature any marquee games at the Moody Center, Texas notched only two Power Five wins, a last-second victory over 5-8 Louisville in New York and a 96-85 win against LSU in Houston.

Despite results that have the Longhorns on the NCAA Tournament bubble, senior forward Brock Cunningham is optimistic about the team’s upside.

“I noticed through non-conference that we have the ability to be really good team. When you start the season, you think you’re going to be good And whenever you get into actual games, you figure out what your ceiling can be and I think we can take this as far as we want,” said Cunningham on Thursday.

The return of forward Dylan Disu has buoyed Texas after the Vanderbilt transfer missed the first eight games of the season due to the foot injury that ended his remarkable postseason run in March. In the four games since returning, Disu is averaging 11.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 20.0 minutes off the bench.

Disu has remained the backup to Virginia transfer forward Kadin Shedrick because of the improvement from sophomore forward Dillon Mitchell, who has five double doubles this season and is averaging 11.0 points and 9.3 rebounds following a disappointing freshman season, what Cunningham termed a “night-and-day difference.”

“He’s playing with a better motor and with his athleticism that’s opened up a lot of his game from the rebounding to running the rim to playing defense. He’s really expanded his game in every single way,” said Cunningham.

Over his last four games, Texas junior guard Tyrese Hunter has also taken his game to the next level, scoring 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting against LSU and a season-high 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting against UNC Greensboro last week. Hunter missed the last game against UTA with an illness.

“Tyrese is taking this game here over the last couple of games to another level, mostly on the defensive end of the floor. I think anytime he’s playing at an elite level defensively and engaged on that end of the floor, offense comes really easy to him,” said Terry.

The addition of Oral Roberts transfer Max Abmas has required returnees like Hunter and Cunningham to adjust to playing with the high-scoring guard. After using Abmas as the primary ball handler early in the season, the staff moved him off the ball more frequently to take advantage of what Cunningham calls his Steph Curry-like ability to cut and run off screens while clarifying the role of Hunter as the point guard.

“Both of those guys can play off of one another really well. Those guys I think have gotten really close together, as well — the chemistry off the court is just as good as on the court and I think when you have that, you’ve got two guys comfortable in their own skin. At the end of the day, both guys are winners and they want to win and so they’ve done a great job of really just playing off one another and having each other’s back,” said Terry.

Improving defensively remains a point of emphasis for a team with some weak individual defenders, including Abmas, who gets attacked because he lacks size at 6’0, and the wandering attention span of IT Horton. Head coach Rodney Terry is happy with the progress.

“Defensively, I think this team has been practicing really, really hard over the last four months and we’ve gotten so much better from from day one this fall defensively and we still have room to grow, but we’re getting better and we’re taking more ownership in defending hard and really trying to get stops and understand how important defense is,” said Terry on Thursday.

Entering the challenge of Big 12 play, Terry is emphasizing valuing possessions and taking care of the basketball, rebounding on offense from poor trips down the floor, and stringing consecutive stops together with a physical defensive mindset.

Texas Tech enters Saturday’s game as a program once again in turmoil. Less than a year after head coach Mark Adams resigned in the midst of a suspension for making racially insensitive remarks to a player, a civil lawsuit was filed against Red Raiders guard Pop Isaacs alleging that he sexually assaulted a minor in the Bahamas in November after a booster provided alcohol to Isaacs and another Texas Tech player. Isaacs has continued to play and remains in “good standing” with the athletic department after the matter was reported to the university’s Title IX office.

Under first-year head coach Grant McCasland, who spent six years at UNT before taking over in Lubbock, Texas Tech is 11-2 on the season and ranked No. 36 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric with the No. 45 offense and No. 42 defense. McCasland’s teams are known as being defense-oriented and for playing at a deliberate pace, currently at No. 251 in adjusted tempo.

Texas and Texas Tech have played two common opponents — Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and UT Arlington — with the Red Raiders pulling out a 73-64 win over the Islanders and a 77-66 win over the Mavericks in November. Texas beat TAMUCC 71-55 in December and UTA 79-62 victory on Monday. The two losses for McCasland’s team came against Villanova in the Battle for Atlantis and Butler in overtime in the Big 12-Big East Battle with notable wins over Michigan and Vanderbilt during a non-conference schedule that ranks No. 311 nationally. the Longhorns are the first ranked opponent and second true road game for the Red Raiders this season.

A 72-70 win over Tech last season ended a four-game winning streak for the Red Raiders in Austin as Isaacs scored 23 points. The sophomore guard recently scored a career-high 28 points in a blowout win over Sam Houston State and 21 points in a comfortable win over North Alabama. At 15.8 points per game, Isaacs leads Tech in scoring. Former Iowa and West Virginia guard Joe Touissaint is the primary playmaker at 4.3 assists per game and the secondary scorer at 14.3 points per game. Warren Washington, a 7’0 forward who transferred from Arizona State, provides a big presence in the middle and averages 8.4 rebounds per game.

Texas Tech has won 10 of the last 15 matchups against Texas.

How to watch

TV: ESPN2

Time: 7:00 p.m. Central

Livestream: WatchESPN

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

Odds: Texas is a 6.5-point favorite, according to Draftkings.

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