Texas head coach Shaka Smart cheers on his team against Kansas during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Austin, Texas. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Men's Basketball

Texas coach Shaka Smart preaching ‘passion’ as Longhorns prepare for SEC-leading LSU

Longhorns-Tigers meet on the basketball court Saturday as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge

Posted January 24th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • For the Horns, Saturday is about personal pride. “The one word we’ve used is passion,” Smart said.
  • LSU is sitting in first place in the SEC standings because it has taken control of games late, Smart noted.
  • F Kamaka Hepa questionable vs. LSU with ankle injury. F Gerald Liddell is out with a strained back.

Nobody inside Cooley Pavilion wants to hear anything about West Virginia anymore. But Bob Huggins’ words after Monday’s blowout in Morgantown ring true after Texas went careening off those country roads for a 38-point loss.

“You ever walk in there some days just not as well prepared and excited about doing it? It’s probably not very good,” the Mountaineers coach said.

Huggins was actually describing his team’s effort in a 16-point loss at Kansas State two days prior.

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“It’s so mental,” he continued. “If you come in and you’re excited, you know you’re prepared, you know what you have to do, you’re so much more likely to have success.”

The Longhorns (12-6, 2-4 Big 12) have been doing all sorts of mental gymnastics in recent weeks. The Providence embarrassment right before Christmas was “a real lesson for our guys,” coach Shaka Smart said. The 10-point Oklahoma setback at home prompted “soul searching.” Then came West Virginia. “It isn’t where we thought we’d be at as a team,” guard Jase Febres said.

Texas  gets a break from league play Saturday, but no respite from pressure. LSU (14-4, 6-0 SEC) comes to the Erwin Center for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, a made-for-TV affair made up of 10 cross-conference games.

RELATED: Men’s preview: Texas vs. LSU (Big 12/SEC Challenge)

For the Horns, Saturday is about personal pride.

“The one word we’ve used is passion,” Smart said. The word itself was written on a large sheet of paper next to the coach where he had made notes for himself.

LSU is sitting in first place in the SEC standings because it has taken control of games late, Smart noted. The Tigers are led by Smart’s former assistant at Virginia Commonwealth, Will Wade. The two worked together for four years but have gone separate paths since.

LSU forward Emmitt Williams dunks against Ole Miss during the Tigers’ win on the road last Saturday. (Bruce Newman/The Oxford Eagle)

“It’s about having a passion,” Smart emphasized. “On the current possession, if it’s defense, stopping the other team and attacking what they’re trying to do. If it’s offense, working together to create a basket. There is a level of pride in that, for sure.”

Monday’s 97-59 loss in Morgantown was Texas’ worst as a member of the Big 12 conference. That topped the 35-point loss at Morgantown in 2018, which was the previous low water mark.

ESPN cameras caught UT players griping at each other, although Smart brushed that off as players holding each other accountable. It’s well known this is a tight-knit locker room. To see emotions boil over like that marked a clear sign that players are frustrated.

“But we can’t get too high when things are good and too low when things are bad like this,” Febres said Monday. “We can’t get this game back, so we have to realize we have another game Saturday against a good SEC opponent and use that game as a turning point.”

Febres is convinced Texas can improve. The Horns are still in full control of their NCAA Tournament destiny. With a 2-4 league start, it’s going to take some serious work, though.

“We still have 13 more conference games to go,” Febres said. “We can capitalize and come out with a positive record as long as we put together stops, put together a collective effort.”

That’s where Smart comes in. He was upbeat Friday in talking about the LSU matchup. Not so much when talking about injuries, though.

Forward Kamaka Hepa will miss the game with an ankle injury. Forward Gerald Liddell will be out for an extended period with a back issue. Liddell had been playing through pain but finally got a MRI, Smart said. Liddell was on the verge of suffering a stress fracture.

For those who are available, Smart has been figuring out how to push the right buttons in practice.

“It’s not about singling anyone out. But we have really challenged those guys to step forward,” Smart said. “Having a passion for rebounding, having a passion for running the floor, having a passion for defending the way that we need to defend.”

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

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