Texas rode a five-game home winning streak and brought enough momentum to fill up the entire Lone Star State into a Feb. 7 battle with the Kansas State Wildcats.
Looking to coast to another Big 12 conference win at the Frank Erwin Center, the Longhorns built an early seven-point lead. Then, the impetuous collapse struck. The Wildcats roared back and stunned the crowd in Austin with a 67-64 upset victory.
“We did not do a good job last time of turning the page after a good win,” Smart said on Monday. “You have another good team that you have to play in the Big 12. I didn’t think we were sharp the way we needed to be, so there’s going to be a lot of focus on remembering that.”
Texas (16–11, 6–8 Big 12) faced an unwanted result in its first go-around with Kansas State (19–8, 8–6) this season. The second will occur without the luxury of a burnt orange crowd for Texas — 675 miles north in the plains of Manhattan, Kansas.
The Feb. 7 outcome marked a turning point in Texas’ NCAA Tournament hopes. The Longhorns were subsequently annihilated at TCU and conquered by Baylor at home in double overtime. But the slumping Longhorns saved their season on the road last Saturday with an 11-point win over then-No. 23 Oklahoma. Now, it’s time do it again.
“The defense is what won us that game,” Smart said. “Our guys made some big shots as well, and just being able to sustain good stretches of high-level defense on the road is what we needed to win on Saturday, and it’s what we need to do if we want to win on the road moving forward.”
Against Oklahoma, Texas’ offense received a long-awaited boost from junior power forward Dylan Osetkowski, who leads the Longhorns in scoring with 13.9 points per game. He registered a team-high 21 points in Norman and involved himself in plenty of hustle plays to swing the game in the Longhorns’ favor. Osetkowski only posted eight points in the last outing against Kansas State, so getting the junior in rhythm will be a primary focus of Smart’s offense.
“The way that Dylan is made, he’s not good when he’s trying to prevent,” Smart said. “He’s good when he’s trying to attack and trying to be assertive, so we’ll definitely talk about the way we handled that and approached that.”
Texas must also expose Kansas State’s weaknesses in order to claim this vital game in Manhattan. The Wildcats rank No. 342 out of 351 Division I teams in rebounds per game, so boxing out on the low block to collect second-chance points will be of prime importance. Texas’ inability to rebound late has cost the Longhorns several games this season, so the pressure will be on freshman center Mo Bamba and Osetkowski to prevent the Wildcats from securing clutch boards if the game comes down to the wire.
A wave of bitter nostalgia will hit Texas when the team sees a No. 32 purple and white jersey Wednesday night. Kansas State small forward Dean Wade torched the Longhorns’ defense two weeks ago with 16 points and a lethal midrange game. But Texas can’t emphasize locking down Wade too much, or else the paint will free up as it did during the last meeting.
“Bamba and (Osetkowski) stayed out on the edges,” Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber said after the two teams’ first meeting on Feb. 7. “Usually they’re going to sit back and help, but we got Dean moving in and out, and they just decided they were not gonna let Dean score and we were able to get those easy buckets around the hoop.”
Yielding easy buckets needs to be off limits for Texas, which remains fighting for its life in the brutal Big 12. The Longhorns look to build on another strong Oklahoma win in a different manner against Kansas State, tipping off at 8 p.m. Wednesday.