Isaiah Taylor isn’t a superstar in national basketball circles, but for Texas, he’s the man.
But he’s just a man. To steal a line from Duke in Rocky IV, he’s not a machine.
In other words, you can’t depend on him to blow up every night.
The Longhorns (10-6, 2-2) are going to need more man performances from players not named Taylor to get to the NCAA Tournament, because right now they wear the profile of a bubble team in the making. Coach Shaka Smart is still trying to get consistent big performances out of his junior lead guard, and the supporting cast has been more miss than hit at key junctures this season.
Against showtime opponents like North Carolina, Stanford and, on Tuesday night, highly regarded Iowa State, Taylor has been stellar. Texas won all three of those games, which will help its case in March if the Longhorns find themselves on the NCAA bubble.
But there have been a couple of stubs of the toe against lesser opponents when Taylor wasn’t at his best, and even at times when he was great, like when he scored nearly half the team’s points in a bad loss to Texas Tech.
Then there was last week’s loss at TCU. Smart said Taylor got a little down on himself — kids nowadays would say he was “in his feelings” — and the Horns were unable to make enough plays in the 58-57 loss, a real crusher because TCU had never beaten Texas since joining the Big 12.
Taylor is human, and humans are allowed to have off days. That happens in sports. He won’t give Texas 28 points night in and night out. On those games where he’s off, even on those days when he’s in his feelings, that supporting case must step up.
That’s what has to have Shaka feeling a bit better about things after Tuesday’s overtime win against No. 17 Iowa State. The supporting cast was at its best in a had-to-have game, as starting out 1-3 in the Big 12 without having yet faced Kansas, Baylor or Oklahoma was something Texas wanted to avoid.
Smart got after them after the TCU loss — Taylor included — and the result was a bounce-back win over a respected opponent. Tuesday was a blueprint of what Texas needs moving forward: Big performances from Taylor and some good, spread-out production from the Longhorns’ lesser provens like Tevin Mack, Eric Davis and even veteran guard Kendal Yancy, who put in some nice work in a start against the Cyclones.
Mack, the freshman swingman, was a godsend in the first half with three bombs that kept the Horns right there with the high-scoring Cyclones. After scoring 57 in Fort Worth, Texas scored 31 in the first 12 minutes. Seven came from Mack, who couldn’t buy a bucket in the first month of the season. More noticeable was the 6-6 Mack taking the ball to the bucket for a three-point play.
“It feels great, honestly, because at the start of the season, I wasn’t making shots,” Mack said.
He was referring to making only 5 of his previous 24 three-point attempts. He made three in one evening against the Cyclones.
“When does Tevin Mack hit (four) threes?” wondered Georges Niang, Iowa State’s All-American forward. “He’s shooting 30 percent on the year.”
Smart said he brought Mack in here to score, not to just shoot threes. He believes we’ve just gotten a glimpse of what Mack will eventually bring to the table on a consistent basis.
With that said, Mack and the others fully understand that the kind of contributions we saw from him cannot just happen every once in a while. Texas won’t score 94 points every time. Thirteen triples in 31 attempts will be the exception, not the norm, for a team that had made only 14 threes in its previous four games before Iowa State.
The glass-half-full side of my brain says Texas is turning a corner. Taylor is emerging as one of the best guards in one of the top basketball leagues in America, and Smart is starting to figure out how to get the most out of a lineup that’s missing its best big man in Cameron Ridley.
The glass-half-empty side of the my brain says the Horns caught lightning in a bottle and had one of those nights where the shots were falling against a team that was known for putting up big offensive numbers.
Therein lies the beauty of sport. The Horns will have plenty of time to prove their last game was more than a just a wonderful snapshot of what Smart hopes to be an every-game occurrence.