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No. 19 Texas 91, UT-RGV 55: Plenty of Longhorns thankful for a strong start in season opener

Freshman Greg Brown notched his first double-double, but keep tabs on sophomore Kai Jones

Texas’ season-opening win Wednesday night over UT-Rio Grande Valley looked like the family dinner table on Thanksgiving. There was so much to choose from, where do you start?

Texas forward Kai Jones, right, blocks Texas-Rio Grande Valley's Uche Dibiamaka during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday Nov. 25, 2020, in Austin, Texas. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

It’s tempting to dive right into Greg Brown. The freshman from Vandegrift had 11 points and 10 rebounds in his Longhorns debut, not to mention his first poster. He’s only the fourth freshman in UT history to start his career with a double-double.

Someday, Uche Dibiamaka will tell friends about getting dunked on by an NBA pro.

“I’ve been trying to stay out the way of him killing people, you know?” UT guard Courtney Ramey said. “I’m just not trying to get killed. It was a spectacular play.”

Ramey’s plate looked overloaded, too. He had a team-high 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Matt Coleman, like the ever-present, always-consistent green bean casserole, had 17 points. And Gerald Liddell brought extra dinner rolls with 10 points and six boards.

The 91-55 victory at the Erwin Center tied for the fourth-most lopsided win in coach Shaka Smart’s Texas tenure. The 19th-ranked Longhorns (1-0) even held the Vaqueros to 26.1% shooting, the second-best effort in Smart’s five-plus seasons.

But every family gathering always leads to heated discussion, so let’s zero in on Kai Jones. Is it possible the 6-11 forward had the best offseason? His sophomore campaign is off to a sensational start with 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting with eight rebounds.

This team is stacked with athleticism, so much in fact that junior Kamaka Hepa planned on redshirting even before the NCAA froze everyone’s eligibility with the pandemic. Smart indicated big man Will Baker is even looking at this year at a developmental one.

Jones, who spent the COVID downtime working out in Orlando, Fla., knew he had to sharpen his all-around game if he was going to get minutes.

“I want to get better at being more violent with my finishing, getting to the rim, better with my catch-and-shoot threes,” Jones said. “And also, just being an elite rebounder, I think that’s just going help the team a lot.”

Jones’ aggressiveness was on display early, as he scored on a run-out and then followed that with a dunk. But there was a noteworthy sequence in the second half. Jones had a steal with 4:07 left but lost control of it. He hustled into position to pressure a shot attempt, and after the Vaqueros missed, he shot himself out of a cannon.

Jones ran downcourt like it was last call on dessert. Coleman finished the play with a layup, but Jones was in position for the putback, should one have been required. It’s the kind of hustle that will definitely get noticed in film session.

“I think that’s something that coaches emphasize a lot to me: Just run the floor as hard as I can,” Jones said. “Sometimes you won’t get it. But I think running just brings that attention to you. And then it allows the floor to open up for other people.”

Smart said: “A lot of people don’t know this, Kai was a track star before basketball kind of became his main sport.”

The coach said Jones has bought into taking the right shots along with “getting in the paint, attacking the basket. So he went 6 for 6 tonight, because he got a lot of the right shots.”

Each player on this team must carve their own role. Brock Cunningham, the firebrand who triggered late last season, was one of the first subs off the bench as Smart looks for those who can bring energy. He got five rebounds. Liddell also got busy when given his chance by hitting two 3-pointers and another long shot from the baseline.

Royce Hamm Jr., a senior, hustled for seven rebounds. Donovan Williams looked like he’s recovered from a left knee injury; he had seven points and was just fine after flipping over one of the Vaqueros.

Jericho Sims had a quiet night with just four points, but he’ll be a star attraction when the rugged Big 12 schedule begins. Jase Febres, Smart’s 3-point bombardier, is sidelined after a microfracture surgery in March.

The one player left out Wednesday was Andrew Jones. He stayed home after starting to cough after shootaround, Smart said. While that may not sound like much, such is life in a pandemic.

“He was smiling and shooting the ball in, and then about two hours before the game started, I got a call from our trainer,” Smart said.

Smart said Jones — along with the entire team — tested negative for COVID-19 on Tuesday in their latest go-round with the nasal swabs. However, UT’s strict protocols indicate that anyone with symptoms is required to stay home.

It sounds draconian, but teams all over the country are already canceling games. Texas has kept the majority of its players healthy in all sports and played every game as scheduled. Last week’s UT football game was postponed because of an outbreak at Kansas.

Texas will spend next week at the Maui Invitational, which actually will be held in Asheville, N.C., because of the pandemic. Now’s not the time for an outbreak among Smart’s troops.

But Wednesday proved these Longhorns have plenty of options. No reason to fight at the table. There’s plenty for everybody.

“I just think everybody who came in the game gave us something,” Ramey said. “That’s what we’re going to need, because there’s so much going on with COVID. One person might have missed the game like Andrew did, and the next person’s going have to step up.”