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Longhorns have one overriding thought going into Red River rivalry matchup: Aggressiveness

Cunningham on how Texas can improve: ‘When we’re the most aggressive team, we win games’

Texas forward Brock Cunningham defends against California Baptist's Ty Rowell in November at the Erwin Center. On Monday, Cunningham said the team's focus has been on increasing how aggressively it plays on both offense and defense.

Texas forward Brock Cunningham used the word “aggressive” and its more descriptive cousin “aggressiveness” a total of 11 times in four minutes Monday.

Care to guess what the theme of Texas basketball practice was the past two days?

“It’s something that we need to work on,” Cunningham said. “The aggressiveness is a big part of our team. And when we’re the most aggressive team, we win games.”

Learning how to be aggressive is a process. But what have the Horns learned so far?

“That we need to be more aggressive,” Cunningham said.

Yes, but what does that look like as No. 21 Texas prepares for Tuesday’s game against rival Oklahoma?

Preview:Denied a Top 25 ranking, surging Oklahoma looks to take down rival No. 21 Texas

“The totality of it means getting fouls, making them play bad, making steals, getting rebounds, being physical, knocking people down on rebounds, just asserting our will on the game, playing at our own pace, getting good team shots, having a good culture within the team,” Cunningham said. “That's all aggressive, and they'll go into winning.”

Texas forward Christian Bishop and Kansas State's Mike McGuirl battle for a rebound during the Longhorns' 70-57 win Jan. 4 in Manhattan, Kan.

Asked another question, Cunningham said, “There’s a common theme here.”

So why didn’t the Longhorns play that way Saturday in Stillwater? Oklahoma State sure did and captured a 64-51 decision that truly could have gone either way. Texas (12-3, 2-1 Big 12) didn’t play anywhere close to its best, but the window was open to steal a huge road win.

More:Stuck in the mud offensively, No. 14 Texas can’t maneuver its way through Oklahoma State

“I don't have a straight answer for that,” Cunningham said. “It’s just something that we need to work on.”

That’s why Beard refers to the league race as an “18-round fight.” Tuesday’s game against the Sooners (12-3, 2-1) is round four. 

“Victory is going to favor the more aggressive team. Always has, always will,” Beard said. “What happens when you get two teams that are going at it? Well, you get a college game. And then those games, victory is going to favor the team with the fewest mistakes.”

Starting forward Tre Mitchell is expected to miss a second consecutive game due to COVID-19 protocols, Beard said. The Horns have been without a key player for each of their first three league games. 

More:No. 17 Texas feasted on easy nonconference foes, but West Virginia bites back

But opponents have been shorthanded, too. West Virginia was without its leading scorer. Kansas State had only seven scholarship players. Oklahoma State was at full strength and wanted to force the ball out of Marcus Carr’s hands. The Cowboys wanted to force other Horns to make plays. Their plan worked, obviously. 

Carr, who had 20 points against West Virginia and 19 against K-State, managed just four on 1-of-6 shooting. Texas turned it over too much early and missed too many shots late.

San Jose State's Ibrahima Diallo fights for a rebound with Texas' Marcus Carr in November at the Erwin Center. Oklahoma State focused on stopping Carr in the Horns' last game, and it worked.

The final free-throw disparity highlighted OSU’s aggressiveness. There’s that word again.

The Cowboys were 16-for-23 at the stripe while the Horns had a total of seven attempts. Beard’s goal is to make more free throws than the other team attempts. That’s exactly what happened in reverse against Oklahoma State. Texas has not shot a single free throw in the first halves of the past two games.

“Our lack of free throws is another sign of our aggressiveness,” Cunningham said. “We need to get into the paint and make the refs call fouls.”

It’s not just about going hard to the rim. It’s about finishing once you get there. Dylan Disu had two dunk attempts blocked by OSU defenders. “If he dunks those balls, it’s probably a different outcome,” Beard said.

Beard said the Horns must also draw fouls without the ball. That could mean moving screens or holding away from the basket. Big 12 basketball games often resemble what happens on the gridiron.

“I told the guys this morning, it’s not just Brock’s job to come in and make these physical plays. It's your job too, Marcus,” Beard said. “And it’s not just Avery (Benson)’s job to come in and play defense. It's your job too, (Courtney) Ramey.

Texas' Jase Febres and Alabama State's Trace Young reach for a rebound last month in Austin. The Longhorns are looking to become a more physical team during Big 12 play.

“We need Jase Febres to make open shots. We need (Christian Bishop) to get his hands on loose balls. We need Brock to impose his physicalness in a game,” Beard added. “Hopefully every player we put in the game can go in there and impact the game and change the game.”

Believe it or not, there were some good things over the past week. Timmy Allen had two strong games on the glass. Devin Askew raised eyebrows with some key plays against Oklahoma State. Others had key individual moments. 

The Horns simply must put it all together for 40 minutes, something that didn’t happen all that often in nonconference action.

“How close are we? I don’t know,” Beard said. “We see it in practice and see it in games, and we can feel it. We just have to consistently get there in games.”

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