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Golden: COVID-ravaged Horns should cancel Kentucky trip

No. 5 Texas dressed only eight scholarship players in Tuesday's 80-79 loss to Oklahoma.

Texas assistant coach K.T. Turner coached the Longhorns in Tuesday night's home loss to Oklahoma because UT head coach Shaka Smart has tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Coach Shaka Smart missed the Oklahoma game after testing positive for COVID-19.
  • Assistant coach K.T. Turner coached Texas in Smart's absence.

Here's some unsolicited advice for the Texas Longhorns:

Stay home.

Don't play at Kentucky on Saturday.

With COVID-19 raging, stick with the green grass of Austin. That bluegrass can wait.

It's a sensible opinion, but one that will go unheeded. When deals are made and big money is at stake, basketball games will be played.

Texas at Kentucky is on.

The No. 5 Longhorns are in much better shape for a game than they were in the days leading up to Tuesday's 80-79 home loss to Oklahoma, but they still shouldn't go, as if they have a choice. With all due respect to the television executives and conference bigwigs who scheduled this Big 12/SEC Challenge, this is a game that just isn't worth playing.

COVID-19 is still on the warpath, and a pretty meaningless nonconference game that won't move any needles tournament-wise makes no sense. After the Oklahoma game, Texas assistant coach K.T. Turner, subbing for quarantining head coach Shaka Smart, summed up the week very well when he disclosed that he only had six players available for a recent workout.

"It was a little hard to practice," Turner said. "You couldn't even play five-on-five."

Turns out it was was much worse than he let on.

Texas guard Matt Coleman III drives the ball against Oklahoma defenders in Tuesday night's game.

When it was announced that games against Iowa State (Jan. 20) and TCU (Jan.23) were postponed due to COVID-19 issues within those programs — including Horned Frogs head coach Jamie Dixon testing positive — the Longhorns were actually going through their own struggles with only three players available in the days before the Iowa State game. That eventually increased to five, which was still one short of the six scholarship players needed for a game to happen, per Big 12 guidelines.

A sixth player did become eligible on Sunday, which put the Horns in position to play Oklahoma. They ending up dressing eight, albeit with many of those players having not practiced due to quarantine protocols, meaning conditioning wasn't good for the most part. Turner said he wasn't even sure if senior guard Matt Coleman would be able to make it because of how gassed he looked in Monday's practice.

As far as Kentucky goes, this game is happening because Texas appears on an upward arc when it comes to available bodies for the trip. The Horns underwent tests Wednesday with another round scheduled for Friday before they board the plane to Lexington. Barring any more outbreaks, the game will happen, but don't expect Smart to be there. The easier call is to let Turner handle this one while he recuperates at the house.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart was not on the sideline for Tuesday's game against Oklahoma after announcing on Monday that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Barring any setback on the roster, wing Brock Cunningham will play Saturday, but the status of starters Courtney Ramey and Jericho Sims — who were both in quarantine for Tuesday's game —  is still unknown since they would have to pass tests on Wednesday and Friday to possibly be eligible.

It goes without saying that Smart and the missing veterans were sorely missed in a game the Horns nearly stole at the end. Smart talked to his coaches and players through Zoom calls and text messages during the week, but his familial on-court reassurance was missing, especially in the first half when the Horns let an early lead slip away due to fouls and just plain old sloppy play.

The Kentucky decision is out of Texas' hands, though a bit of timely, well-placed contact tracing wouldn't go unappreciated for those looking at the big picture. Just kidding (I think).

"Right now, we're just taking it one day at a time," Turner said. "You know, protocol goes with that."

He's right, but let's not forget the money that's being spent as part of this six-year series with ESPN and the conferences. The Horns (11-3) have little to gain in a pure basketball sense. Worse yet, they could take a huge hit as far as securing a potential high NCAA Tournament seed if they limp into Lexington and lose to the Wildcats, who are in the midst of a 5-10 nightmare, their worst to date under head coach John Calipari.

Frankly, this season on a national level is turning out like many of us expected it would. Unlike the NBA, the NCAA wasn't going to create a bubble atmosphere for 700 Division I men's and women's basketball programs, so the only choice it had — besides cancelling the season, which wasn't going to happen — was to have each conference institute the best health guidelines possible.

They've given it the old college try and the season is still on the tracks.

"It's just a nation-wide thing, we are living through a pandemic," Coleman said.  "Times are different. So when it comes to basketball, it's just different, but it's not just different for the University of Texas. It's different for every collegiate team."

Football having made it through a bowl season and championship playoff provided hope, but basketball will prove tougher because of smaller rosters, more travel and many more games.

In simple terms, the NCAA's goal is to somehow make it through this regular season and cash in on those NCAA Tournament riches. The smart move would be to then cancel the conference tournaments to minimize the COVID-19 risk and make sure all is well for those fortunate 68 who'll convene in Indianapolis. If it doesn't make money, it doesn't make sense and the last thing the administrators want is another canceled Big Dance and another $600 million in revenue getting away.

In the meantime, prayers up for Smart and anyone else being affected by this dreaded disease. 

As for Saturday's show, it will go on in Lexington and everywhere else.