Basketball

Longhorns looking to avoid February struggles in upcoming stretch

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Texas is 13-19 in the month of February since 2017 under head coach Shaka Smart. That includes a 5-4 mark at the end of the 2019-20 season beginning with four straight losses and ending with a five-game win streak.

Smart finds his team at a familiar juncture. COVID circumstances and the quality of recent opponents are factors, but Texas is already 0-2 in February with what is Smart’s best-ever roster. In a ‘prove it’ season where Texas was once in one-seed conversations, Texas is 3-4 against teams that were ranked at the time of their matchup and just fell out of the AP top 10.

In one week, Texas will travel to Norman to face a streaking Oklahoma Sooners squad. Lon Kruger’s team will be UT’s toughest challenge during a four-game stretch that includes Kansas State, TCU, and Iowa State — the three teams at the bottom of the Big 12 standings. The stretch begins with a game at KSU on Tuesday night. Smart hopes his team can continue its successes on one end of the floor, while turning its fortunes around on the other.

“I really like the way that we improved defensively from the Baylor game to the Oklahoma State game,” Smart said Monday. “We really got back to who we need to be on the defensive end. Obviously, it was a really tough game for us offensively. Really was for both teams, but they made one more play than us. That was the difference.”

Smart made personal history on Saturday during Texas’ 75-67, double overtime loss to OSU. One of the statistics his program tracks in-house is deflections made on the defensive end. In 50 minutes of basketball, Texas met the program standard for deflections, forced 21 turnovers, and only allowed 75 points.

Despite one of the stronger defensive performances of the season, the offense left plenty to be desired.

“We had by far the most deflections we’ve had all year,” Smart said. “Now, we played 10 extra minutes, but we were way over our deflection goal even at the end of regulation. In fact, it’s only the second time since I’ve been coaching that we’ve exceeded that goal and lost the game. When you shoot 25% from the field and turn the ball over 21 times, you look at that end of the floor.”

Texas’ three starting guards, Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, and Andrew Jones, combined to shoot 10-of-49 from the field. Jones posted the best percentage of the group with a 5-of-20 night that included a 2-of-13 effort from three. Ramey and Coleman combined to make one shot from distance on 13 attempts.

The Longhorns felt compelled to try and shoot their way out of a funk over the Cowboys’ zone defense. OSU head coach Mike Boynton threw a 2-3 look at the Longhorns for extended stretches on Saturday, and Smart’s squad struggled to produce against it.

These issues, like the February record, are familiar struggles for UT. But Smart believes he knows how his team can execute better if opponents abandon man-to-man defense.

One solution is continuing to play with pace, which he believes demonstrated some success against OSU’s man-to-man defense. The zone stifled those successes, and, according to Smart, Texas didn’t execute their zone-beating schemes.

“There was some real simple, basic concepts against zone that we didn’t own well enough,” Smart said. “There are some things that we showed our guys yesterday and reviewed on the court yesterday. They know them, we just got away from them a little bit in the game.”

Smart attributes some of his guards’ poor play to fatigue since each played over 40 minutes, and admitted he should have found more rest for the UT ball handlers. He also said the guards know they need to play better on offense.

Smart expects to see better from them in Manhattan.

“I really liked the maturity that they seem to have about them coming out of that game,” Smart said. “It’s about getting back on the court in our next game tomorrow night at Kansas State and actually putting together two really good halves on both ends of the floor, offense and defense.”

Cover photo courtesy of Texas Athletics