The Big 12 is the strongest conference in the nation this season. All of the rating systems - KenPom, RPI, Sagarin - agree, and watching the teams play only validates that.
Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State and even Baylor demand our attention. However, in the last three weeks, Texas has played its way into the regular-season race. The Longhorns have won six of seven and are tied for third with a 6-3 Big 12 record, one game behind Oklahoma and West Virginia.
The Longhorns' road is rugged. They have six games remaining against teams in the KenPom top 30, with a pair against Oklahoma.
“Like my college coach used to say, ‘its too late to cancel.’” Smart said. “The good thing is we only have to play them one at a time. We don’t have to play them all at the same time.”
Texas looks like a solid (and potentially dangerous) NCAA tournament team as it prepares to face Texas Tech on Saturday. Here are three reasons why:
1. Excellent defense.
In Big 12 action, the Longhorns lead the conference in effective field goal percentage defense (44.0 pct.) They’ve shut off the 3-point line, allowing opponents to score only 23 percent of their points there. They've been sturdy inside as well, holding teams to just 44.8 percent on 2-pointers because 6-11, 265-pound center Prince Ibeh has become one of the nation’s premier rim protectors, swatting 13 percent of opponent’s shots.
“It’s just a desire to be good on that end and good as a unit,” Smart said Tuesday in a phone interview. “Because it’s not a one-man endeavor. It’s five guys working together.”
What the Longhorns don’t do is force turnovers at a high rate like Smart’s teams did in his six seasons at VCU. In fact, they’re eighth in Big 12 games in defensive turnover rate (16.9 pct. of possessions).
“We have a different team,” Smart said. “This isn’t the VCU team, these aren’t the VCU players. I think there’s a little oversimplistic assumption in the media that you’re just going to do exactly what you did in the last place, because that’s all you know or that’s the only way you can coach or whatever. We’re just trying to do the best job with the guys we have here.”
2. Isaiah Taylor and the other veterans are playing like veterans
Taylor has been dynamic from day one. The junior point guard has a career-high 114.7 offensive rating. He’s trimmed his turnover rate from 19.6 percent of possessions last season to 12.6 percent this season, assists on more than one-third of the Longhorns’ field goals and is a driving force, who makes five 2-point shots and five free throws per game.
Taylor’s backcourt mate Javan Felix is also having his best offensive season (118.7) - he scored 17 of the Longhorns’ 56 points in the defeat of West Virginia.
6-10 senior Connor Lammert has been less consistent but scored double figures in the wins over Iowa State and Baylor - where he scored 15 points on seven shots.
“Confidence has been a big part of it,” Smart said. “It’s a combination of two things. Those guys needed to take more accountability coming into the season for their own success and the team’s success. That’s been a process over the last several months. I think they’re doing that and that’s creating positive results for them and their teammates and that’s what you want from their older players.”
3. Balanced attack with room to improve
The Longhorns are one of 14 teams in the nation who are top 40 in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency. There’s reason to believe they’ll address and improve their two significant weaknesses - free throw shooting and defensive rebounding.
For example, Ridley was hauling down six defensive rebounds per game. Smart’s VCU teams tended to peak in February and March. If Ridley returns, say just before the NCAA tournament, the Longhorns immediately become better than where they’re seeded. Also, because they aren’t overly reliant on the 3-point shot (29.9 percent of points, 153rd in the nation), a cold outside hand won’t be crippling.
Smart likes the way his team has developed.
"Give our guys credit they did a good job taking accountability for what we needed to do and have been able to make progress," he said. "You’ve got to be able to believe that you’re going to win. You’ve got to believe individually that you can go play well against good players. These guys have experience, they've won big games and played in the NCAA tournament (the last two years)."
Any team that’s defeated North Carolina, West Virginia and Iowa State, as Texas has, could cause problems in March.