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Initial thoughts as No. 17 Texas gears up for Big 12 play

Texas mostly cruised through a weak non-conference schedule, but the Big 12 should prove to be a gauntlet yet again.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 22 Alabama State at Texas

The non-conference slate is now in the rearview.

12 games in, Chris Beard’s Texas Longhorns sit at 10-2 and enter Big 12 play ranked No. 17 nationally, but in typical Big 12 fashion, they’re going to have to scrap for each win from here on out.

Here’s a few quick thoughts on Texas’ struggles, what’s working, and where this team could go from here.

Who’s starting? That’s a question that’s a bit difficult to answer with 100 percent certainty almost each time out. Chris Beard has tested six different starting groups in 12 games. Tre Mitchell and Timmy Allen seem to be the only guarantees at this stage, and for good reason considering they’ve easily been Texas’ most consistent contributors. But elsewhere, Beard has experimented with a perimeter that’s seen each of Marcus Carr, Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones, Jase Febres, Devin Askew, and Christian Bishop start, and no group has started together more than just five games: Mitchell-Allen-Febres-Ramey-Carr. Much of this was simply having so much roster turnover and trying to find the right fits. Some of it’s because the backcourt of Carr, Ramey, and Jones, which could be special, just hasn’t been, and Beard seems to be trying to inspire by way of benching. Now entering Big 12 play, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some tweaking here and there to account for matchups like when Texas needs to match size, but different units on a nearly game-by-game basis, to me, says Beard and his staff don’t have this figured out yet. With the margin for error about to drop, that’s a bit concerning.

Dude, where’s my Carr? Coming off of a junior campaign that saw him average 19.4 points and 4.9 assists at Minnesota, Marcus Carr was arguably the top transfer prospect to hit the portal last offseason. He simply hasn’t been the same player in Austin. That isn’t to say he’s been bad, but he arrived as a “missing piece” and, well, Texas is still missing that piece at point guard. No, Carr wasn’t going to be the high-volume scorer / do-it-all guy he was last season simply because he’s surrounded by much more talent and thus, his role isn’t the same. But for Texas to be the best version of itself this season, they’ll need Carr to be much closer to the all-conference version of himself he was in 2020-21. Through 12 games, he’s totaled just 103 points on 99 shots — compare that to his 265 points on 183 shots through the first 12 games last season — which includes a pair of two-point games, a four-point game and a six-point game. In fairness, Carr adjusted to the talent and depth around him pretty unselfishly. Even though he’s averaging a career-low 3.3 assists, he’s looked to get the ball into teammates hands rather than shot hunting at a high clip, but that was part of what made him special last season — he could drop 30 any time out. Again, the circumstances are a bit different, but if Texas has any hopes of being that Monday night team this season, they’ll need Carr to be that confident, bucket-getter, especially in big moments when the games get tight in Big 12 play.

Dylan Disu is absolutely going to be a factor. In the three games since his debut against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Disu’s totaled 39 points, 19 board and nine blocks, all while playing just 53 minutes on a minutes restriction. The last two times out, he’s led the Horns in scoring and tallied a double-double. He isn’t the biggest forward in the world at 6’9 225 pounds, but his size is huge for this team given their lack thereof, and his skill, athleticism, and instincts have been apparent when he’s out there. As he continues to get back into basketball shape, I think we’ll see Disu become a guy you can just expect to produce each time out like Mitchell and Allen have, and he’ll likely be the difference in a couple games.

Pick up the pace. Way more often than not, Texas’ offense has felt like that car cruising down I-35, doing 60 in the slow lane. They’re gonna get where they’re going eventually, but that ride is going to be a little boring. Beard’s offense ranks 357th nationally in tempo, ahead of only Virginia, and that pace almost seems to be exceptionally slow by design. Even when Texas forces turnovers, which they’re doing pretty often at 18.2 per game, they don’t really push the pace and attack in transition, which in turn makes things more difficult for an offense still finding its footing in the half court. The story was a bit different the last time out against Incarnate Word and the result was a variety of transition threes, layups, dunks, and 78 points despite taking their foot off the gas a bit late, but that hasn’t been the theme consistently. At the end of the day, winning is what matters, even if it isn’t the most enjoyable to watch, but from my lens after seeing how frequently Texas finds itself in close contests in league play, I think the number of games the Longhorns lose by playing at a sluggish pace and not pushing the ball when they probably should will be more than one.

Does Texas have a championship-caliber defense? When Beard led Texas Tech to the title game, his sluggish offense wasn’t fun by any means, but it ranked No. 25 in efficiency as a complement to a defense that led the nation. This year at Texas, Beard’s Longhorns play a less-than-thrilling brand of basketball offensively, but still fare fairly well, ranking No. 34 in efficiency with a defense that leads the nation in scoring (51.3) and ranks No. 10 in efficiency. But the numbers feel a bit inflated. Most of Texas’ competition has ranked among the nation’s worst offensively — only Seton Hall and Gonzaga ranked in the top 50 in efficiency, and Texas lost both those games, allowing 64 and 86 points, respectively. Until proven otherwise, I wouldn’t bet the house on offensive firepower winning Texas too many games — they’ll rely on dominant defense to do that. But dominating is about to get a bit more difficult. Headlined by top-five offenses in Kansas (3) and Baylor (5), Texas’ Big 12 slate will include six opponents — so 12 games — against teams ranked in the top 85 in efficiency, and Tennessee is up there as well at No. 47. In short, defending is about to get a lot more difficult, and while Texas clearly plays with effort and stays engaged and disciplined on that side of the ball, I’d expect the lack of a true rim protector and the kind of hyper-athletic wings and forwards Texas has enjoyed in recent years become more evident from here on out. If they can maintain this level of pressure and impact defensively even as Big 12 play heats up, Beard will be sitting pretty, but that will be far easier said than done.

I still don’t have a great feel for this team. It’s hard to put much stock into Texas’ dominant wins considering the competition mostly fit into the cupcake category, and the two times Texas was truly tested, they lost. This team isn’t any less talented or experienced than they were to begin the season, and I’m still relatively high on what this team could become, but the pieces just haven’t quite fit yet and some key contributors still need to play to that expectation. It may happen, it may not. The only thing I’m sure of is Texas won’t dominate the Big 12 in Kansas-esque fashion, and they won’t be bottom-feeders. Everything in between is up in the air. To me, the biggest question is the guard trio of Carr-Jones-Ramey. None have played to their potential or matched previous contributions, and I think much of that is still just adjusting to a new offensive scheme and so many new bodies around them. If that group can get it together and start producing at a level they’re capable of, Texas should absolutely be in the mix for a Big 12 title. If not, the Big 12 is loaded yet again and Texas could find itself falling into a less-than-desirable tournament seed, or even fighting for a simple bubble bid.