Nonconference matchup gives Longhorns rest, reflection before final stretch

Dalton Phillips

After nearly a month of grueling Big 12 matchups, this weekend offers much-needed respite for a worn-down Longhorn roster. 

Texas turns its attention to an SEC opponent for the second time this season as it prepares to host Ole Miss on Saturday afternoon at the Frank Erwin Center. 

The conference detour is part of the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge. The 10-game spread features matchups between the two big-name conferences, although the Big 12 has yet to lose a series in the four years since the event began.

More importantly, the rivalry offers nine days of rest from rigorous conference play. 

“We know going into the last five weeks of conference play there are going to be a ton of battles,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “Physically, we have some guys that are banged up. Snoop (Kerwin Roach II) still has to get his hand all the way back. Matt (Coleman) has played heavy minutes, Dylan (Osetkowski) has played heavy minutes. So getting a little bit of rest for those guys will be big.”

Texas is coming off a bounce-back win over Iowa State on Monday night. The team’s star duo of Roach and freshman forward Mo Bamba both posted career nights against the Cyclones, scoring 22 and 24 points, respectively.

Bamba also collected a game-high 12 rebounds for Texas in the victory. The NBA prospect is currently ranked 12th in the nation in rebounds per game at 10.7, and his interior presence has been crucial for the Longhorns.

“He’s really a one-man rebounding machine,” Roach said. “You look sometimes, there will be like three guys blocking him out, and he still goes up and gets the rebound.”

Saturday’s game will be about continuing to build momentum for the second half of the season.

Ole Miss is coming off a dominant win of its own over defensive-minded Alabama. In that game, Ole Miss senior guard Deandre Burnett joined the career 1,000-point club, reaching the milestone in only 80 career games. The Rebels guard is averaging a team-high 16 points per game in his final season.

For a Texas team that has yet to win consecutive conference games this season, recovering and improving will be vital for any NCAA Tournament aspirations. In the absence of sophomore guard Andrew Jones, Texas has been forced to employ a tighter rotation. The team has leaned heavily on its starters in Big 12 play thus far, and the wear-and-tear is evident. 

Saturday’s game against Ole Miss is a rare opportunity to tinker with new lineups and give role players big minutes without jeopardizing Texas’ conference record. 

And Smart is the first to acknowledge the value a nonconference game offers this late into the season.

“We have one more nonconference game Saturday. It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” Smart said. “The ESPN people will make a big deal out of the Big 12 versus the SEC, but we have to focus on Texas. And we need to put together an opportunity to win multiple games in a row.

“Fortunately we’re at home and our guys can get some rest. Then we need to go attack them.”