Texas and Kansas are going in two very different directions.
The Longhorns, losers of three straight and four of their last five games, are off to their worst start in Big 12 play under head coach Rick Barnes and are coming off a 20-point loss to Iowa State last Saturday. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, are riding a 14-game winning streak and come to Austin this weekend as the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Texas’ leading scorer, sophomore guard Sheldon McClellan, played just one minute in that defeat to the Cyclones. Kansas’ leading scorer, freshman guard Ben McLemore, scored 17 points in a win over Baylor on Monday and is a candidate for multiple national player of the year awards.
McLemore suffered a sprained right ankle in the victory over the Bears this week but head coach Bill Self said he was on track to play Saturday.
“The guy that’s really subbed in on Sheldon was [Ioannis Papapetrou],” Barnes said. “We haven’t gotten enough [offensive rebounds] from our perimeter players. It’s not like we’re asking them to be lock-down defenders. It’d be great if they could do that, but, overall, we need offense from them and we need rebounding from them.”
Barnes has led Texas to the NCAA Tournament in each of his 14 years at the 40 Acres, but with his Longhorns at 8-8 going into arguably their toughest game of the season to date, that streak is in danger of being snapped.
“You always try to prepare for what could go wrong,” Barnes said. “You have to believe that, in the long run, it’s probably going to work out. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’ll even out when it’s all said and done.”
Texas opened conference play with a pair of overtime losses to Baylor and West Virginia before being blown out by Iowa State last weekend. A game against Kansas, which has won each of its last eight games by an average of 17.8 points, could leave the Longhorns at 0-4 in Big 12 play by the end of the weekend.
One thing the Longhorns have going for them is their defense. Texas has held opponents to 24.8 percent from three-point range this year, the best mark in the country. The defense has also held opponents to 34.3 percent shooting from the floor, the second best in the nation. The only team holding opponents to a lower shooting percentage? Kansas.
“They see how fine a line it is between winning and losing, and I think that’s the toughest thing to teach young players when they’re playing a lot of minutes,” Barnes said. “There’s a sense of urgency and understanding that you need to stay engaged on every possession. You don’t have to play perfect.”
Maybe not, but if the Longhorns want to take down the Jayhawks this weekend, they’ll need to come close.