Defense continues to define Longhorns' season

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Texas head coach Shaka Smart, center, talks with freshman forward Kai Jones (22) and junior forward Jericho Sims (20) during a media timeout in the second half of their game against Kansas on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2019 at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.

Photo Credit: Joshua Guenther | Daily Texan Staff

The best teams in the country rely heavily on defense, and Texas men’s basketball is no different. However, inconsistent defense has caused the Longhorns problems in both their victories and in their losses, and in Saturday’s 66-57 home loss to No. 6 Kansas.

Saturday, the Longhorns earned a five-point halftime lead, limiting Kansas to its fourth-lowest scoring output in the first half this season. Two of those games came against the Big 12 in No. 2 Baylor and No. 12 West Virginia.

“We say all the time (that) our guys’ defense has to be our identity and our anchor,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said. “You look around this league and all the best teams have that in common around the country. So the defensive side of the ball has got to be where you start.”

Before the season started, members of the team felt that defense would be the biggest area of improvement from last year’s National Invitation Tournament winning squad. With defensive-minded associate head coach Luke Yaklich joining the staff from Michigan, both philosophy and technique were expected to change. 

“I think defense will be our biggest improvement,” freshman forward Brock Cunningham said before the season began. “There were several games last year (where) we let teams get into the 80s and 90s. I’m not saying that won’t happen this year. We just have so much pride in our defense this year.”

However, there have been several defensive lapses at critical moments so far this season, leading to losses to Oklahoma, Georgetown and Kansas, in addition to close calls against Prairie View A&M and California Baptist.

In both the Oklahoma and Georgetown losses, the Longhorns let second-half leads slip away and ended up with double-digit losses. In the two games against the aforementioned small conference teams, both were given the chance late in the game to pull off the upset.

These lapses were even more pronounced against Kansas, largely due to missed opportunities on the other end of the floor. During a dominant stretch in the first half, Texas held the Jayhawks scoreless for over six minutes. However, over that time, the Longhorns were only able to build a relatively small lead. Heading into halftime, the Longhorns led by five points when they could have taken advantage of the Kansas scoring drought.

“I think they went five or six minutes without scoring and we built a lead, but if you hold a team for that long without scoring, you want to build it more,” Smart said. “For it to be five at halftime, obviously that’s a good half. But the way that we defended, you know if that lead’s 10 or 12, that’s a big difference.”

The lower intensity on the defensive end in the second half allowed the Jayhawks to be more aggressive with their offensive game plan, which translated into an 8-2 scoring run to start the half.

The Longhorns were able to stop the bleeding as the rest of the half was largely both teams trading baskets. But late in the game, Texas couldn’t come up with key stops and was unable to take advantage of a tied game with less than five minutes to go.

“As a collective group, we let go of the rope,” junior guard Matt Coleman said. “We still had a chance to play down the stretch but they made more plays.”