Ask Texas fans when basketball season starts, and most have the same answer: After the bowl game.
Well, not this year.
Texas coach Shaka Smart doesn’t get the month of December to fly under the radar. His Longhorns (5-3) are now front and center since football season’s over. Those just tuning in picked a great time to focus on the Erwin Center. Here comes Roy Williams and the third-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.
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“I expect a full crowd, hopefully,” said Texas guard Tevin Mack, one of Smart’s three prized freshmen who look far more confident eight games in.
“That’s definitely one the best basketball schools ever,” Mack said. “Much credit to them. But it’s going to be a great game, should be a dogfight. Hopefully we can pull out a win in the end.”
Smart probably doesn’t know what to expect from UT fans. He walked out to the bench before Tuesday’s 116-50 win over UTSA and could have counted fans at the Erwin Center individually during the pre-game introductions. A couple of thousand eventually trickled in, though center Cam Ridley saw the crowd and said, “That’s a heartbreaker.”
“Certainly, we always would love to feed off energy from our home crowd and people at the game,” Smart said. “I know our guys are excited to be playing this game at home.”
In many respects, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Texas fans are disenchanted after watching their teams get hyped up, only to flounder in March. Last year’s bunch reached No. 6 in the rankings before the mega-matchup with No. 1 Kentucky in early December. The Horns were completely out of the Top 25 by February and bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in their first game.
This year, there’s been a more low-key approach heading into the most high-profile matchup since third-ranked Kansas rolled into town in March 2012.
“Last year, we thought we were better than we were,” Ridley said. “Obviously we’re looking forward to it, because it’s one of the biggest games on our schedule. But I don’t think we’re hyped up as much as we were last year.”
This year, the Horns are unranked after losses to Washington, No. 25 Texas A&M and Michigan. It’s not a strong rebounding group, but the Horns play solid defense. Opponents are shooting 37.3 percent against Texas, the second-best total in the Big 12.
Individually, the Tar Heels (7-1) present some intriguing matchups. The biggest involves Texas guard Isaiah Taylor, who hasn’t gotten off to a great start, and North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, the preseason co-ACC player of the year.
Taylor dominated Washington in the season opener in China, scoring the majority of his 27 points after halftime. He averaged 14 points in three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. Taylor’s biggest issue has been inconsistent dribble-drives. Sometimes, he’s deadly; other times, he’s out of control. But Smart wants Taylor to keep going.
Saturday’s matchup is “a really important game for Isaiah,” Smart said.
Smart, like former coach Rick Barnes, believes that Demarcus Holland is Texas’ best defender. Holland will be asked to stop Paige, who poured in an average of 16.5 points in two games back from a broken hand injury. Ridley will have an interesting test against Kennedy Meeks, a 6-10-forward. The two are quite similar. Both get point-blank looks, gobble up rebounds and swat away shots with regularity. Ridley should have some help if backup Prince Ibeh is cleared to play; Ibeh experienced tightness in his lower back as a result of a nasty spill one week ago.
Smart didn’t have to wait long for his breakthrough moment at Virginia Commonwealth. In his first season, he hosted his predecessor Jeff Capel and fifth-ranked Oklahoma. The Rams won 81-70, and fans went crazy.
Smart ended up with a 10-13 record against ranked opponents during his six-year stay at VCU.
“That first year, we did have some big wins early, couple of tough losses as well,” Smart said. “There’s definitely some wins that we were glad to get under our belt and help us move forward.”
With a win Saturday, Smart’s program can truly take flight. Stanford and Connecticut are waiting in the wings before Big 12 play begins at Texas Tech on Jan. 2.
If Smart wants to make a good impression, beating the Tar Heels is a good way to do it.
“I think it would be nice to have a win for a lot of reasons,” Smart said.