The basketball gods have not been kind to the Longhorns this season.
Early on in the season, Texas was spared, only losing a player to injury after a concussion to sophomore forward Gerald Liddell sidelined him for the season opener against Northern Colorado.
However, since the beginning of 2020, the Longhorns have been bitten several times by the injury bug, affecting the depth of the Longhorns, particularly at forward. Against No. 1 Baylor, Texas head coach Shaka Smart had to send out a new lineup that had yet to start together this season, and the Longhorns couldn’t overcome, falling 52-45 Monday.
Losing two starters would hurt any team down the stretch, but this particularly hurts for a Texas team already struggling with consistency. Against the Bears on Monday, the loss of both players was heavily pronounced. The absence of Kai Jones allowed Baylor more offensive success down low, and the Texas offense desperately needed Jase Febres’ shooting on a night they shot 17% from three.
Injuries have plagued the Longhorns since the turn of the decade. Sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa and Liddell both suffered additional injuries this calendar year, with Liddell’s stress fracture in his back putting him out of commission indefinitely. Hepa was able to make his return in a losing effort to Texas Tech.
“It was fine,” Hepa said following the loss. “Once the adrenaline finally got going, it was fine. I was getting up and down the court.”
In that same game, the Longhorns lost both junior guard Jase Febres and freshman forward Kai Jones to injuries just minutes apart. While the loss of Febres could be supplanted by talented freshman Donovan Williams, the loss of Jones hurt with limited depth on the bench at his position.
“Kai sprained his ankle,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “There was no break or anything like that. He’s in the process of working his way back.”
While the team has guards to spare on the bench, the shooting ability of Febres has been sorely missed in his absence. His ability to make shots from anywhere beyond the arc, as evidenced by his clutch 3-pointers against TCU, was absent from the remainder of the game as Tech made a comeback.
“Jase and Kai went out and changed things a little bit lineup wise for us,” Smart said after the loss to Tech. “When that happens in the game, you have to go with who you have.”
The game against the Red Raiders saw a Texas team give away a 16-point lead. While the injuries clearly hurt the team and upset the healthy teammates that had to continue to play, they had no choice but to move on quickly.
“I mean, during that time we probably did, but like during the flow of the game I didn’t think much about it,” junior guard Matt Coleman III said of the injuries to his teammates. “I don’t think we talked much because we just wanted to win.”
Moving forward, the Longhorns will have to make do with what they have and will have to rely on players stepping up to keep their slim NCAA Tournament chances alive.
“One thing that always strikes me is how much it affects our players when one of their teammates gets hurt,” Smart said following the loss to Baylor. “I think because they relate to each other. I thought our guys did a really good job saying, ‘Hey, here’s who we got to be. We’re short-handed, but we have to step up and help each other.’”