Defensive identity during win streak carries Texas to NCAA Tournament doorstep

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An 81-52 loss at Iowa State on February 15 appeared to leave the Texas Longhorns’ NCAA Tournament hopes for dead. Losing to a middling team without its best player not only added another loss to Texas’ record and dropped them to 4-8 in conference, but it was also a demoralizing defeat.

“We had a reality check since Iowa State,” Andrew Jones said Friday. “It was a humbling experience.”

Following that return to Austin, the Longhorns knew they needed an identity if they wanted to salvage the 2019-20 season. Their recent five game win streak shows though the breakthrough was late — almost too late — they discovered one.

Since returning from Ames, UT notched wins over TCU, Kansas State, West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma. All five opponents failed to crack 60 points against the Longhorns.

“Our identity is defense,” Matt Coleman said. “No threes, limiting guys’ offensive rebounding, and at the end of the day just getting stops. Some days we may struggle on the offensive end, but we can’t let that interfere on the defensive end.”

That identity was discovered despite depth severely limited by injuries to Jericho Sims, Donovan Williams, Jase Febres, and Gerald Liddell. Texas has found itself in the midst of NCAA Tournament conversation when three weeks ago, the conversation was elsewhere.

“We just redefined who we are,” Brock Cunningham said. “Looking back and thinking we could have done this doesn’t do us any good. During the streak, we’ve looked at it one game at a time and focused on the next most important thing.”

Cunningham can credibly claim to be the poster child for the Longhorns’ identity. Prior to the first win in the recent streak versus TCU on February 19, he barely played. He started the season opener versus Northern Colorado and played 10 minutes. In his eight appearances that followed, he never played more than six minutes.

Even against Iowa State, Cunningham’s 15 minutes weren’t during a competitive portion of the game. He checked in with under 15 minutes left in the second half once the Cyclones had a 20 point lead.

He hasn’t played fewer than 15 minutes during Texas’ streak. He pulled down key rebounds versus West Virginia, added eight points in 22 minutes against the Red Raiders in Lubbock, and played a career-high 32 minutes in the win over the Sooners.

His numbers won’t impress, but that means little to him. Since he’s increased his minutes, he’s focused on continuing to do the things that help Texas win.

“Just the little winning plays that I do,” Cunningham said. “Not filling up the stat sheet, but hustling, playing good defense, and being where I need to be.”

Cunningham has lead a defensive effort where it appears the team is getting better on that end even while running eight deep. Physical wear and the grind of the season is something every team competing for a tournament bid has to handle, but that’s accentuated with limited depth.

Despite that, Cunningham, Jones, and Coleman all mentioned the team is in good shape physically. Cunningham even credited strength coach Andrea Hudy with helping the team be able to maintain their effort.

However, the feel-good story of the last five games could come to a despondent end if Texas were to falter against Oklahoma State on Saturday. The Longhorns beat the Cowboys by 12 in Stillwater on January 15, but some roles have changed. Kamaka Hepa lead the Longhorns with 15 points, but he’s played 33 minutes total since the loss to Iowa State. Febres added 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, but he’s unavailable.

There’s still Saturday’s game to attend to for the Longhorns if they want to solidify their NCAA Tournament hopes when a few weeks ago they had none.

“Now, we can’t get complacent,” Coleman said. “We just have to have the humility to take care of business on Saturday, and the rest will fall into March’s hands.”

How do they take care of business? Relying on their identity.

“Be the aggressors on defense and limit our turnovers on offense,” Jones said. “Make sure we execute every time down the court, and I feel like that will give us a better chance of winning the game.”