For the second time in as many years, Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns remain unblemished through three games. When the competition level increased entering the Legends Classic last season, though, the Longhorns winning percentage decreased.
A 3-0 Texas team left Brooklyn at 3-2 after dropping back-to-back games to Northwestern and Colorado by a combined 33 points.
This time around, with Texas set to square off in a PK80 Tournament featuring teams with a talent level far superior to that of any foe the ‘Horns have handled thus far, Smart detailed the tall test that awaits Texas when it arrives in Portland this week.
“This week for us is really about three things,” Smart said on Monday. “Number one, getting better; number two coming together as a team; we’ll spend a lot of time together, obviously, being on the road; number three, the opportunity to play some high, high level competition and hopefully pick up some wins that can help us now and later.”
In short, Texas is preparing for the kind of stretch it’s yet to see this season after cruising to three wins over Northwestern State, New Hampshire and Lipscomb by a combined 87 points.
"Obviously, the competition is going to go up significantly Thursday with Butler,” Smart said.
"We're just flat out playing a much more talented, multi-dimensional, dangerous team in Butler than we've played so far,” Smart later added, continuing his praise for the Longhorns tournament-opening opponent.
In Butler, Texas will see a versatile bunch with an abundance of experience. The Bulldogs boast two senior starting forwards in Kalen Martin and Tyler Wideman, a junior wing in Paul Jorgensen and a pair of sophomore guards in Sean McDermott and Kamar Baldwin. With the exception of of Jorgensen (9.8 ppg), each averages double figures in the scoring column, led by Martin’s 15 points and 8.3 rebounds each time out.
It’s largely the same bunch that made a March Madness run to the Sweet 16 in 2016-17 to cap a 25-win season.
Furthermore, if Texas can come out on top in its Thanksgiving Day gathering with Butler, it’s quite possible an even taller test awaits, as one of the Longhorns or Bulldogs will move on to face the winner of Duke and Portland State. Common knowledge says the top-ranked Blue Devils will be the ones awaiting with winner of Texas-Butler, posing the challenge of simply keeping pace with a roster abundant with blue-chip recruits, experience, and potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft in Marvin Bagley III.
Forturnately for Texas, the Longhorns, too, present a roster with plenty of experience and a freshman class that ranked No. 6 nationally. Depending on how things play out in Portland, though, Smart’s club could seen be face-to-face with its most formidable two-game stretch since No. 12 West Virginia and No. 3 Kansas in late February.
In short, Smart is well aware that Texas hasn't seen quite the level of competition it will endure in Portland in quite some time and how the ‘Horns respond should have some semblance of a say in how the season plays out once Texas returns to Austin.
“This week for the first time we’ll see a level of adversity within games, and that’s something that’s going to be interesting for our guys in terms of how we handle that adversity, and how we respond that’s going to go a long towards whether or not we’re able to win,” Smart said.