It’s been Shaka Smart’s belief this season that strong performances from two of his guards gives Texas a chance against any opponent.
Smart was initially referring to guards sophomore Courtney Ramey and junior Matt Coleman III, but the formula rings true regardless of the combination.
On Monday night against No. 20 West Virginia, Coleman took a backseat to a resurgent performance from Ramey and redshirt sophomore guard Andrew Jones.
Jones’ career-high 22 points were more than enough as Texas cruised to a 67-57 victory over the Mountaineers. The game was a pleasant change from the 38-point embarrassment the Longhorns suffered in their last meeting in Morgantown, West Virginia.
“Their aggressiveness and their ability to make plays is huge,” Texas head coach Smart said. “When you’re playing West Virginia, it’s not going to be pretty out there. It comes down to your guards being able to make plays, and those guys made a lot of them tonight.”
Jones was nothing short of unstoppable in the first half, going off for 16 first-half points — nearly half of Texas’ 34 points. The Longhorns’ 62% first-half shooting was nearly a season high, only third to their first-half performances against Kansas State and California Baptist.
“If we make some of these same shots in the second half against Kansas … or even in the Baylor or Tech game, maybe those (games) go differently,” Smart said. “And if we don’t make them tonight, then obviously our margin for error is much smaller.”
Ironically, the season-ending injury to junior forward and leading rebounder Jericho Sims may have played a role in this late-season run. Since Sims’ back injury nearly two weeks ago, Texas’ newfound lack of depth has forced Smart to give significant minutes to roll players previously considered afterthoughts, such as freshmen center Will Baker and forwards Kai Jones and Brock Cunningham, to some extent.
“We’re all scholarship players at Texas,” Ramey said. “We know we can all go, and people just stepped up tonight.”
Smart said it helps the players to know that they can’t be subbed out and that Jones and Ramey are trusting themselves.
Ramey chipped in 21 of his own as he’s averaged just over 20 points in his last four games.
“Since Matt (Coleman) hurt his heel, the last three games Courtney and Andrew have been much more aggressive,” Smart said. “Those guys have taken it upon themselves to be our lead guards.”
Jones said that with him and Ramey in sync, Texas can do great things, such as keeping its tournament hopes alive for one more game. NCAA Tournament expert Joe Lunardi said that Texas is a tournament team with Monday’s win and a win in the Big 12 Tournament.
With three consecutive double-digit wins, the Big Dance is slowly becoming a possibility for Texas. But what has changed as the Longhorns turned a dreary losing streak into the most important win streak of the season?
“A sense of urgency,” Cunningham said. “We were at a point in our season where, if we lost any of these past three games, our postseason dreams would have been shattered. But now that we’ve put ourselves in a good position moving forward, I think that brings new life.”