Listen to Austin 360 Radio
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months

No. 4 Texas headed to No. 14 West Virginia, site of Shaka Smart’s two biggest losses at UT

Thanks to hot start, Longhorns won’t be able to sneak up on anybody as being hunted is harder than hunter

Texas men's basketball coach Shaka Smart, right, talks to his team during a timeout in Sunday's win over Iowa State. The fourth-ranked Longhorns can improve to 4-0 in the Big 12 on Saturday against 14th-ranked West Virginia.

Last week’s win at Kansas sure was exciting, and Texas is 3-0 in Big 12 play. As great as that sounds, all the fourth-ranked Longhorns have done is made a clean break from the starting gate.

The reality is the grueling 18-game marathon is just getting started.

There will be hard trips to Waco, Fort Worth and Lubbock. Plan on stepping around landmines in the states of Oklahoma and Iowa. The Horns will host some fierce gatherings at the Erwin Center, too. And those same Jayhawks will be in Austin in late February.

Texas (9-1) clearly has the inside track here early. But Saturday’s trip to 14th-ranked West Virginia is just another reminder that the Big 12 race has a long, long way to go.

RELATED: Men's preview: No. 4 Texas at No. 14 West Virginia

“This is just the beginning of conference play, and we got some real battles coming up,” UT coach Shaka Smart said. “So our guys are going to have to understand, even when we don't feel one-thousand percent fresh as a daisy, going to have to find a way to be the toughest, meanest, most connected version of ourselves if we want to win.”

Smart’s veteran team has always been good about not peeking ahead. They usually only answer questions about the next opponent and rebuff anything about two or three games down the road. 

West Virginia (9-3, 2-2 Big 12) should have UT’s full attention. The Mountaineers totally embarrassed the Horns at WVU Coliseum with a 35-point blowout in 2018 and a 38-point smackdown last season. Those are the two biggest Texas losses in the Smart era.

Last year’s game was over by halftime. It was so embarrassing, West Virginia players carried walk-on Spencer Macke off on their shoulders for his late 3-pointer. “We got our ass kicked, to sum it up,” UT guard Jase Febres said that night. 

It was also the type of loss that shook the program’s foundation and put Smart’s job in jeopardy. The coach managed to pull things together with a five-game winning streak down the stretch, but it was touch-and-go before that.

Senior guard Matt Coleman III had a more diplomatic view of that episode when asked about it Thursday.

“The more aggressive, the more physical team wins,” Coleman said. “Just thinking back to last year, I don't want to dwell too much on the past, but they came out a lot more aggressive, a lot more physical. They set the tone. And we found ourselves down really early, and it just snowball going into the rest of the game.”

Texas guard Matt Coleman III looks to pass against Iowa State's Tyler Harris during Sunday's win in Austin.

The Horns no longer have any element of surprise thanks to their win at Allen Fieldhouse last Saturday. Every team will come ready to play.

The only thing that travels, as the players say, is defense. The Longhorns rank third in the league in scoring defense (63.1) and first in field-goal percentage defense (.383). That tells you that Texas makes it extremely difficult for teams to score. 

Texas also ranks third nationally in Kenpom’s adjusted defense efficiency, which measures points for every 100 possessions. 

Statistical jargon aside, the Horns are playing excellent defense right now. “As long as we continue to get stops, it allows us to play at our pace and our brand of basketball, and we're doing a good job of executing plays that coach draws up,” guard Andrew Jones said. 

Being the hunted is not as easy as being the hunter. Ask Kansas, the standard setter with 14 consecutive Big 12 titles from 2004-18. Texas Tech won a share of the league title in 2018 but went 9-9 the following year. Winning the Big 12 isn’t easy and staying on top is even more difficult.

Texas hasn’t won a Big 12 regular-season title since 2008. Maybe that streak comes to an end this season. It’s too early to predict how it’s all going to turn out. 

But these Horns appear eager for the next step, which comes Saturday in Morgantown.

“All we’ve got to do is point to last year’s debacle up there,” Smart said. “That’s one of the benefits of having so many guys back from last year. We can talk about that, and they’ve been there.

“That doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win,” Smart noted, “but at least it’s something that they can take an experience and hopefully bring the right mindset.”

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