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Hoops hope: Texas-Kansas meet in Longhorns’ first top-10 matchup under Shaka Smart

Is Texas ready after layoff? Kansas’ McCormack: ‘I know if you get into them, they like to avoid physicality’

Kansas fans cheer during pregame introductions before the Dec. 8 game against Creighton at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. The third-ranked Jayhawks host No. 8 Texas on Saturday.

It’s taken five-and-a-half seasons, multiple ups and downs and a long string of close calls and false starts. But on the second day of 2021, Shaka Smart’s program has finally reached the Big 12’s centerstage.

No. 8 Texas faces No. 3 Kansas on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, the biggest basketball stage the Big 12 can offer. For the Jayhawks, this is old hat. They host, play in and win big games all the time.

For these Longhorns, this is new territory. This will be UT’s first game as a top-10 team under Shaka Smart, who is now in his sixth season. From a program standpoint, it’s Texas’ first top-10 matchup in the regular season since December 2014 when the sixth-ranked Horns lost to No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

Social distancing will keep Kansas officials from filling Allen Fieldhouse to the brim. COVID-19 protocols will also force “a guy or two” to miss the trip for Texas, Smart said. Still, this is a massive opportunity for the Horns (7-1, 1-0 Big 12) and a moment of truth.

Is Texas ready? Will Smart’s Horns finally see through The Phog?

“It's funny you use that statement, because I feel like every time you're going after the ball, or every time you're defending a ball screen, or every time you're in a free throw block out, that's a moment of truth,” Smart said Friday. “Certainly every game is a chance to kind of show where you are and the growth that you've made.”

It’s sure tempting, but you can’t call this the biggest game of the Smart era. A heartbreaker against Northern Iowa and a second-half meltdown against Nevada in the NCAA Tournament holds those spots as No. 1 and No. 1A.

But this is certainly the biggest conference game Texas fans have seen around here in ages.

Kansas holds a 35-9 edge in the all-time series. Smart’s only victory over the Jayhawks came two seasons ago at home. If you’ll recall, Smart was banging the Erwin Center floor that day, demanding full effort as Dylan Ostkowski scored a team-high 16 points. Texas won 73-63 and snapped a 10-game losing streak in the series.

Games in Lawrence always go off the rails somehow. Jarrett Allen went wild in 2017, but Texas didn’t have enough supporting firepower. Mo Bamba couldn’t make the trip in 2018. All the stars aligned in 2019 as Texas dug out of a 10-point hole, only to botch the final play.

Texas’ only win in Lawrence is still the 74-63 decision in January 2011. J'Covan Brown had a second half for the ages as the Horns snapped the Jayhawks’ 69-game home winning streak. Tristan Thompson’s five blocks were just as huge.

The Horns could use another big game from their bigs. Kai Jones is shooting 45.5% from 3-point range and flies first-class into the lane. No more kid gloves with Jericho Sims; he needs to produce. The senior goes into this game averaging six points and six rebounds but can do more.

Kansas isn’t intimidated or even impressed, it appears.

“I know they're athletic and lanky,” Kansas forward David McCormack said on Thursday’s Zoom call. “Being a physical player, I know if you get into them, they like to avoid physicality. So I'll try to play that as far as my strengths.”

Kansas forward David McCormack, top, and center Udoka Azubuike fight for the ball as Texas' Matt Coleman crashes the pile during last season's game in Austin.

That will light a fire under the guards, too. Courtney Ramey, Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones have all tried to push to work harder on the glass. Texas is fourth in the Big 12 in rebounding margin (plus-5.3). Kansas is second (plus-9.3).

And of course, this is likely to be UT freshman Greg Brown’s only trip to Lawrence as a college player. 

“As I told the guys, if you play in the Big 12, you get a chance to go there once a year and you want to put your best foot forward,” Smart said.

Kansas coach Bill Self has always spoken highly of Texas’ overall athleticism. He tried to recruit some of the same players Smart has signed. By now, he’s familiar with everyone that Texas will have on the floor.

“I love their personnel,” Self said. “I liked it last year, and they return their top six or seven guys plus you through Brown in the mix, they’re an impressive team to watch.”

Texas' Greg Brown (4) reacts after making a 3-point basket against Oklahoma State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

One potential snag may be Texas’ time off. The Horns haven’t played since Dec. 20. The scheduled tune-up against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi had to be canceled because of COVID protocols. 

Normally during the holiday break, Smart said he would have the players over to his house and have other non-basketball related functions. That had to be scrapped this year as the team held practice, Zoom meetings and COVID tests. 

It feels like Texas’ last game, a win over Oklahoma State, was eons ago. The Horns looked good that night. But that was literally last year. 

It’s 2021, a new year and a new chance to make some headway in the Big 12 race.

“If any of us are super, super, super impressed with something that we did as a team or individually on Dec. 20, and now it's Jan. 1, then that kind of says something about where we're at,” Smart said.

Febres update: Smart said Friday that injured guard Jase Febres (knee) has been cleared to participate in five-on-five workouts. However, it doesn’t sound like he's ready for game action quite yet.

Febres, a junior from Houston, had knee surgery last March and has been slowly working his way back. When he does return, Texas will be adding a long-range corner shooter with a career .359 3-point shooting percentage.

“He’s certainly not all the way back to 100%, but he looks like he’s moving much, much better,” Smart said. 

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