Texas forward Jarrett Allen is introduced to start the game against Kent State during a non-conference game Tuesday night December 27, 2016, at the Erwin Center. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Men's Basketball

Big 12 play begins with Texas looking up — at everyone else

With a 6-6 overall record, Longhorns have a lot of work ahead during 18-game journey that begins Friday at Kansas State

Posted December 29th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • A group of young Longhorns have confidence issues and lack a true point guard.
  • Freshman G Andrew Jones: “Now that we’re 6-6, we’re humbled.”
  • Senior F Shaq Cleare: “I believe in this group, and I believe we can do great things.”

Texas coach Shaka Smart and his assistants pour over reams of data generated after each game. It’s all about analytics these days. That could be good and bad for mediocre teams.

Ken Pomeroy’s well-known analytics site currently projects Texas to go 1-17 in Big 12 play. Yikes.

Based on the site’s mathematical gobbledygook, the Longhorns have just a 6 percent chance of beating Kansas and West Virginia on the road. But look out, Oklahoma! The Sooners are Red River roadkill on Jan. 23, according to Kenpom.com.

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C’mon, 1-17? Surely that’s a mistake, right?

Well, the Longhorns (6-6) sit dead last among Big 12 teams with a .500 record. According to the league stats, Texas ranks last in scoring (70.2), shooting (.431), 3-point shooting (.289), rebounding (36.5), assists (11.5) and second to last in steals (6.1). Basically, basketball.

Texas opens Big 12 play on Friday at Kansas State, an 11-1 team that’s pulverized some well-meaning schools that only their fans follow.

RELATED COVERAGE: Men’s preview: Texas at Kansas State

Now’s the time UT fans usually start paying attention to the local cagers. Harsh at it sounds, the Longhorns shouldn’t worry about winning the league title or even getting into the NCAA Tournament. It’s a young team with confidence issues — and lacking a rock-solid point guard — that’ll need a longer runway than most.

“This is the only way you go win big road games in league play, or even at home,” Smart said. “Our guys have to get together in a room with no one else there and look each other in the eye and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to go do.’ And everyone has to say, ‘Yeah.’”

Texas coach Shaka Smart tries to rally his players in the closing minutes but could never close the gap. Kent State upset Texas on their home court in a non-conference basketball game Tuesday night December 27, 2016 at the Erwin Center winning 63-58. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas coach Shaka Smart tries to rally his players in the closing minutes but couldn’t close the gap during a 63-58 loss to Kent State on Tuesday.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Coaches can try to create those seminal moments, Smart said. At the end of the day, the players have to want it for themselves.

It’s not as if this bunch is incapable. The second-half comeback win against Alabama was impressive. The defensive intensity at Michigan was sublime. The offensive fireworks against Alabama-Birmingham lit up the Erwin Center. In 12 games, there have been alternating stretches of beauty and horror.

Can the Longhorns put it all together for 40 minutes as the games only increase in importance? Can they succeed without an obvious point guard? Can they stop getting “bummed out,” as Smart calls it, when the going gets tough?

“Like I always say,” Smart said, “if they can care about each other and what goes into winning that specific game more than anything else for those two hours, man, that’s the team that we all want to see.”

Senior Shaq Cleare said he saw some of the younger players dropping their heads in the huddle against Kent State. And the Longhorns were down by three. “I had to step up and say a few words, which I can’t talk about,” Cleare said.

College basketball is a game of runs. A 10-point deficit is nothing in this sport where one or two 3-pointers get a team right back into it. There will be plenty of ups and downs in league play, too.

UT's Jacob Young, from left, Jarrett Allen and Kendal Yancy defend against Long Beach State's Roschon Prince in the first half at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday December 10, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas’ defense has been solid at times this season. Opponents are shooting just under 40 percent against the Longhorns.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

If anything, these Longhorns now have a full understanding that the name on the front of their jersey means nothing to the opponent. UT-Arlington and Kent State, two teams from smaller conferences, showed no fear in blasting Texas on its own home floor.

“Some of us thought, ‘We’re Texas’ and they’re just going to give us the game,” said freshman guard Andrew Jones, who admitted he’s more anxious to start league play than nervous.

“Now that we’re 6-6, we’re humbled,” Jones added. “Now we kind of feel like we’re the underdogs. Now we feel like we have something to prove now that nobody really has any faith in us and they don’t know what we can do. We’re just going to go out there and take it.”

The Big 12 is stacked again this season. Noted numbers cruncher Jerry Palm has the Big 12 pegged as the third-toughest league at the moment behind the Big East and ACC.

Conference play is generally unpredictable. Look at what’s happened already this week. No. 2 UCLA and No. 16 Indiana lost their league openers. Texas shouldn’t be considered a pushover against Kansas State, or even in next Wednesday’s home game against Oklahoma State. A 2-0 start is just as realistic as 0-2.

Smart is practically repeating himself at this point. If these Longhorns can just focus on making winning plays and forget about individual stats, he says ad nauseam, things will work out.

Cleare went through these trials last season and helped the Horns finish fourth. Count him among the (few?) believers.

“I don’t care how young we are or how inexperienced, we can play with anyone,” Cleare said. “I believe in this group, and I believe we can do great things.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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