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Golden: Time to find out if Shaka's Horns are as good as they appear

Texas hosts Oklahoma State in Big 12 opener

Texas head coach Shaka Smart call out plays to his team during Wednesday's win over Sam Houston State. He'll lead the Longhorns into Big 12 play against Oklahoma State on Sunday.
  • After a 6-1 start that included winning the Maui Invitational, No. 11 Texas hosts Oklahoma State in its Big 12 opener.
  • Texas beat Sam Houston State 79-63 Wednesday.

The early returns from the first third of the season point to the Texas men being on a different level.

They’re pretty good with the potential to be even better.

Now the Big 12 beckons. Oklahoma Sate and potential overall No. 1 NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham roll into town on Sunday, smarting from their first loss of the season at home to TCU on Wednesday.

The Horns have the feel of a player and Sunday’s game will be a nice indicator of what we can expect now that the money games are here.

I know, you have seen this start before. Texas gets a quality win in the first month of the season, sneaks into the Top 25 as the faithful think “This is our year," only to crash and burn in conference, adding some kindling, coal and lighter fluid under the head coach’s plush office seat.

This season feels different, not only because the Horns (6-1) won the Maui Invitational for the first time in school history — the title win over North Carolina ranks ahead of the team's 2018 NIT championship — but also because they came really close to upsetting Villanova.

After Wednesday’s 79-63 win over 28-point underdog Sam Houston State, I asked Smart what boxes his team has checked on the way to its No. 11 ranking.

His answers? Experience, getting Greg Brown ingrained, and the all-important defense.

Texas guards Courtney Ramey and Matt Coleman are the unquestioned leaders of the team on the court and in the locker room. They are seen here celebrating with the championship poster after the Horns won the Maui Invitational over North Carolina.

As for the experience, it starts with the guards Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones. They are the backbone of this team with Coleman and Ramey serving as co-sergeants at arms on the court.

Tough-minded guard play travels at all levels of college basketball and these two have taken ownership of this team. Neither has shied away from the big moments, from Ramey’s scoop layup to beat Davidson in the Maui semifinals to Coleman’s buzzer-beating jumper to top the Tar Heels.

It’s a guard-oriented team with good leadership, length and scars from the past that it’s using as fuel to turn things around in Smart's sixth year.

Texas freshman Greg Brown has registered five double-digit scoring performances in the first seven games, but he has shown a willingness to get after it on defense as well. He leads the team with nine blocks.

As for Brown, the youngster has made some freshman mistakes — those sneakers should earn frequent flier miles with all the traveling calls  — but he’s a star, no question. The jumper needs smoothing out, but the shots are starting to fall with seven 3-pointers over the last four games since missing his first 10 long-range shots to start the season.

Brown's vast offensive skill set aside — he’s been in double-digits five times — the area that should further excite fans is his willingness to sell out on the defensive end. That leaping ability and long wingspan has already produced team-leading totals in rebounds (36) and blocks (9).

This is an apprenticeship to bigger things, and the mental aspect he's learning from his coaches and teammates will pay large dividends later, like next year when he’s playing pro ball.

While Smart's team has plenty of shot makers, he's still looking for a total game effort on the defensive end.

“We have some experience in quite a few stretches in saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to defense these guys. We’re going to be active and we’re going to get our hands on the basketball,’ but we haven’t checked the box of doing that all the time,” he said.

The defense is an ever-evolving process with a chance to really come together team-wide because of the great depth on this roster. When you can bring in junkyard dogs Royce Hamm, Brock Cunningham and 6-foot-11 energizer bunny Kai Jones — who is also getting love from NBA scouts — it makes Texas an intriguing study looking ahead.

The one area that should worry Smart is the lack of offensive punch on the interior. Jericho Sims just hasn’t been able to put it all together yet.

When a team is suffering through a scoring drought — as was the case for seven minutes of the second half against Sam Houston — it’s always a luxury to be able to dump the ball into the post and have a big man who can finish and draw fouls and make free throws on a consistent basis.

Texas forward Jericho Sims dunks against Sam Houston State forward Dylan Robertson during the first half of Wednesday's win at the Erwin Center. Sims has delivered some highlight reel dunks, but hasn't given Texas the overall consistency it needs in the paint.

Sims has shown that in spurts, but the consistency isn’t there. Sure, we’ve seen an eye-opening poster dunk here or there, but he should be much better than a highlight guy. Texas needs more double-doubles than dunks from its most experienced big. Whether it’s about foul trouble, a lack of confidence or just us confusing great athleticism with playing ability, Sims just hasn’t established himself yet, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.

Coleman and Ramey are in the soft-spoken big man’s face all the time, both in games and in practice. They understand how important his ability to impact the game in the lane will be if this team is to progress.

“First, it starts with yourself,” Ramey said. “You have to want to get yourself going, then he just has to talk to us and just tell us to put him in the right positions. He's going to get going. I'm saying we're not really worried about it. We know conference is coming around. We expect him to be at his best during that time.”

So what we have is a good, deep team with the potential to be be even better under a coach working in a make-or-break season.

Potential is one thing. Production is another.

It’s past time for the Horns to produce in a tough conference. It’s time to find out if they’re as good as they appear to be.

“Obviously, the competition level goes up from (Sam Houston) to Sunday,” Smart said. “We've played some really good teams to this point in the year, but now we get into conference play, and obviously, the intensity always goes up there.”

Along with the expectations this team has created in its first seven games.