You don’t have to tell Shaka Smart how important Texas’ next three games are.
The Texas head coach regularly discusses Big 12 standings and NCAA Tournament hopes with the team. Currently, Texas is 4–4 in conference play and sits at fourth in the Big 12 without a win over a presently ranked team. Its only win over a ranked opponent, a 70-66 win over then-No. 22 Purdue in early November, has proved meaningless to Texas’ tournament hopes as the Boilermakers have struggled to stay above .500.
Now, Texas is gearing up for its toughest three-game stretch of the year. The Longhorns travel to Lawrence, Kansas on Monday before home matchups against top-ranked Baylor and defending Big 12 champion Texas Tech.
“We always want to take one game at a time,” Smart said. “But there’s a heck of a stretch coming up … and what you have to do is be the best team you can possibly be.”
But for now, sophomore guard Courtney Ramey and junior guard Matt Coleman are just focused on the next goal: upsetting the third-ranked Jayhawks in Lawrence for the first time since 2011.
“The whole mentality that we must take for every game is just taking it one game at a time and not putting anybody above anybody,” Ramey said after Saturday’s 72-68 win over Iowa State. “Iowa State was our Kansas (Saturday), and Kansas is going to be Kansas on Monday.”
When Ramey says, “Kansas is going to be Kansas on Monday,” he means that Kansas is going to be what it’s been for 15 of the last 17 years — the crown jewel of the Big 12.
The Jayhawks have traditionally dominated the conference — and Texas. Since the Big 12 was created in 1996, Kansas has won either the regular season conference title or the Big 12 tournament every year except four. Texas has only won nine matchups ever against the Jayhawks.
This season has proven no exception to Kansas’ traditional blue-blooded basketball dominance. The Jayhawks have won nine of their last 10, including a 66-57 win over the Longhorns in Austin last month.
Texas jumped out to an eight-point first quarter lead in the team’s last meeting with Kansas and tied the game with five minutes remaining. But turnovers, a passive offense and overall lack of shot-making in the final minutes plagued the Longhorns in the loss.
But Smart and the Longhorns have learned from their shortcomings in their last matchup. In each of its last two wins, Texas found ways to make plays and execute in the final minutes.
“In (Austin), when we were really assertive and aggressive on offense in the first half, we really got in a flow,” Smart said. “But the key is more us, who we need to be and what’s the best version of us.”
Texas’ last win over Iowa State did wonders for the team’s confidence after bringing the Longhorns back to .500 in conference play. Going into Kansas, Coleman said the team has a better demeanor, swagger and confidence and understands how important each game is to Texas’ tournament hopes.
“The next week of the Big 12, the schedule we have, (the key is) taking one game at a time,” Coleman said. “If we play together, we finish and execute down the stretch, it’s anybody’s game.”