It sounds like Texas coach Shaka Smart needs to add a sixth core value. Appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, accountability and “teamship” — aligning individual goals with the team’s — aren’t enough, it seems.
After Texas beat No. 3 North Carolina on Dec. 12, Smart said, “Today I think we played loose and aggressive.” And Smart loved how freshman Tevin Mack played against Connecticut last week “with poise and aggressiveness,” but noted that overall, “we lacked poise.” The Longhorns lost by five.
Last Saturday against Texas Tech, the Red Raiders “were the aggressors from the opening tip.” Guard Isaiah Taylor “did a good job being aggressive and getting to the foul line” on his way to a career-high 35 points, Smart said.
Looking ahead to Tuesday’s matchup against Kansas State, Smart said, “They have really good spirit as a group. They never stop coming at you with their aggressiveness.”
Related coverage: Men’s Preview: Texas vs. Kansas State
Notice a pattern here? The A-word is the key to landing Ws, apparently.
Unfortunately, changing a culture is not as easy as changing suffixes. Texas (8-5, 0-1) can’t afford to stumble around Tuesday night against Kansas State (10-3, 0-1). The Horns must be the aggressors, whether center Cam Ridley is injured or not.
“Defensively, we’ve just got to take more pride as a unit,” backup-turned-starting center Prince Ibeh said after Saturday’s loss. “We didn’t have what I’ve come to expect from all of us, including myself.”
The Horns stumbled out of the gate in Lubbock and fell behind by 11 points less than eight minutes into the game. That deficit mushroomed to 15 early in the second half en route to a 82-74 loss. Taking early punches without countermeasures is a recipe for disaster in Big 12 play.
Perimeter defense proved to be a real problem. Toddrick Gotcher went 4 for 6 from 3-point range as Texas Tech hit 41.7 percent of its shots beyond the arc.
Taylor took over with dribble-drives in the second half, but overall the Horns had just eight assists on 25 made field goals. Taylor had six himself. That’s simply not the type of ball movement Texas showed during non-conference play. Yes, that’s with Ridley in the lineup, but UT can’t use that excuse too much longer.
The games come fast and furious now, and generally speaking, teams usually need a .500 conference record to be on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble. No, it’s never too early to start thinking about the long-range mission here.
“I think it helps we have experience on this team, and that’s definitely a benefit,” Ibeh said. “Some of the young guys, the freshmen, they play big roles on this team and they’ve never been here before. They didn’t know what to expect.”
This week is a great chance for Texas to figure things out before the schedule gets incrementally tougher. Kansas State lost by 10 to North Carolina, a team Smart’s bunch beat. K-State also lost to Texas A&M by 10. The Horns played the Aggies close before losing in the Bahamas. Then on Saturday, Texas has a road trip to TCU (8-5, 0-1).
With two winnable games on deck, the Horns need to find some aggression, be the aggressors or be flat-out aggressive. If not, they’ll just feel aggravated.