Texas looks to open Big 12 play strong at Texas Tech

Jacob Martella

During a timeout in Tuesday’s loss to UConn, the Frank Erwin Center jumbotron rolled a video of players listing their New Year’s resolutions.

Several players, including junior guard Isaiah Taylor, listed winning the Big 12 as their top resolution for 2016.

The Longhorns begin the journey to that goal Saturday, opening their conference schedule at Texas Tech, but running the gauntlet that is the Big 12 will be no small task.

“This is arguably the best conference in America,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “There’s phenomenal teams across the board, and we start conference play on the road Saturday. We know that it will be a heck of a test.”

The Big 12 heads into conference play as one of, if not the, top conferences in the country and is loaded with depth. The conference boasts the best RPI in the nation, and five teams are in the AP Top 25, with No. 2 Kansas set to take over the top spot after Michigan State’s loss this week.

But that’s only if the Jayhawks can get by No. 23 Baylor, which technically sits at sixth in the Big 12 standings only because five teams have lost just one game or fewer. In fact, Texas’ 8-4 record puts the Longhorns in a tie with Oklahoma State and TCU for last in the conference.

Still, Taylor said the team is approaching conference play as if it’s a new season.

“Everybody starts out 0-0,” Taylor said. “We have to gain new confidence. I think that we’re just going to come into conference play and keep attacking. I think we’re still a great team.”

Complicating Texas’ hopes of succeeding in the Big 12 is the loss of center Cameron Ridley. The senior fractured a bone in his left foot during practice Sunday and will be out an estimated 8–10 weeks.

But if Tuesday night was any indication, the Longhorns are going to have to find a way to fill the massive hole left in the paint by Ridley’s absence. Texas gave up 40 points in the paint to UConn, while senior center Prince Ibeh and junior forward Shaquille Cleare combined for just eight points and 10 rebounds.

Smart said after the loss that the Longhorns are still trying figure out exactly how they’re going to play without Ridley, but he knows that everyone else is going to have to step up.

“We’re going to be more dependent on drive from our guards,” Smart said. “We’re going to need to shoot the ball better from outside, and we’re going to need to get to the foul line and make free throws.”

The schedule, however, doesn’t get any easier as the Longhorns find ways to replace Ridley. Texas hosts Kansas State — which is never an easy win for the Longhorns — on Tuesday, and travel to play TCU in a week.

But with his team’s conference loss column still sitting at a pristine zero, Smart is taking the optimistic route.

“We’re excited about the opportunities that lie ahead,” Smart said. “Every team is going to give really effort. It’s going to be about who’s going to be able to execute at both ends and make plays down the stretch.”