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No. 4! Yes, No. 4 Texas goes into Iowa State matchup trying to keep pedal to the metal

Longhorns snag the program’s highest ranking since 2011 after huge road win at Allen Fieldhouse

Texas guard Matt Coleman III dunks against Kansas in the second half of Saturday's 84-59 win in Lawrence. Texas, now 2-0 in Big 12 play, will host Iowa State on Tuesday.

One of the lowest moments of Shaka Smart’s Texas tenure came at Iowa State last season.

Humbled and humiliated, the Longhorns coach struggled to find the words to explain a 29-point beatdown. Big losses are part of the game, no question. But this particular loss, combined with a four-game losing streak, had to leave him wondering if this was the beginning of the end.

“Our guys as a team are capable of being better, but we were not today,” Smart told the American-Statesman while slumped against the locker room door inside Hilton Coliseum that crisp day in Ames last February. “That’s something we have to address and change.”

What came next was a five-game winning streak. Then UT athletic director Chris Del Conte announced that Smart would stay on the job. Then high-flying freshman Greg Brown joined the team, and Texas started this new season 7-1.

Then came Saturday’s stunning 84-59 win at No. 3 Kansas. The sheer size and scope of this blowout and where it happened lifted the Longhorns to No. 4 in The Associated Press Top 25 rankings — the program’s highest spot since February 2011.

Smart should be doing cartwheels over his scheduling good fortune. Here comes Iowa State (2-5, 0-3 Big 12) again Tuesday into the Erwin Center.

RELATED: Men’s preview: No. 4 Texas vs. Iowa State

Asked if such fortuitous scheduling helps Texas, Smart said Monday, “If you’re a competitor, it does. It helps me. That game (last season) is at the front of my mind.”

Smart acknowledged that “a long time has passed between that game and now.” But the last game — heck, any previous loss to a specific team — should be enough to motivate true competitors, he said.

Practically spitting fire on a Zoom call with reporters Monday, Smart hammered home how these Longhorns can’t become content with their own success now. 

It happened last season, for sure. What happened after that five-game winning streak? Texas came back home expecting something of a coronation in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys stomped the Horns 81-59 in what became the final game of the season because of the pandemic.

“You can’t play and coach out of avoidance,” Smart said. “That’s been a real issue here at times.”

He was just getting warmed up.

Texas coach Shaka Smart yells out to players during the second half of Saturday's win over Kansas. The Longhorns are now ranked No. 4 in the country. “If where you’re ranked dulls your edge, then you’re not a real competitor,” Smart said Monday.

“I don’t know if you talked to other coaches in other sports or not, but you can’t play not to lose,” Smart said. “You have to go after the other team. You are in our way, and we’re trying to win, and we’re going to do everything under our control to win. 

“You can’t tiptoe up there and hopefully we don’t mess this up.”

Smart insists he doesn’t keep up with the Top 25 rankings, but surely his players do. 

“If where you’re ranked dulls your edge, then you’re not a real competitor,” he said. 

His Longhorns have probably spent the past two days getting pats on the back. A voracious reader, Smart borrowed the Nick Saban line — that’s rat poison. “Our job as players and coach is to fight that,” he said.

“We’ve had a lot of bad things said about us, too,” Smart said. “Again, I think our job is to understand who we are and who we want to be independent of what anyone says about us.

“You can’t get high on one and then reject the other,” he added. “If you’re into all the positive things that people are saying about you and that’s making you feel good in terms of self-esteem and self-worth, then you can’t ignore the negative things that people say.”

Smart laughed at the idea that Saturday’s road win inside Allen Fieldhouse was some kind of statement game. It made a statement, though. It was the biggest home loss in Kansas coach Bill Self’s 18-year tenure.

“We went to Asheville (N.C.) and played in that Maui Invitational tournament and Courtney Ramey said, ‘This is a statement game,’ ” Smart said. “Then the next game, he said, ‘This is a statement game.’ That is a sign of him really getting it and understanding that every time we get a chance to take the court — especially in this crazy season with all this uncertainty — the first thing that should be on our mind when we get to get on the floor is intense gratitude.”

The Longhorns would love to share this moment with fans, but COVID-19 has other ideas. No fans will be allowed into the Erwin Center for Tuesday’s game. The next scheduled home game is Jan. 13 against Texas Tech. It’s unclear whether fans will be allowed in.

At least all the games are on television, so fans can see with HD clarity how things are developing. 

“There’s a ton of basketball areas where we need to improve,” Smart said. “It starts with our edge. We have to have an edge about us.”

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