December 11, 2015

(AP) - Shaka Smart's first season at Texas has been anything but sharp.

Excruciatingly long road trips bounced Texas around half the globe's time zones, from China to the Bahamas and back again before Thanksgiving, producing three losses in the first five games.

The Longhorns (5-3) returned home to find paltry crowds coming out to see their new coach and new-look game after years of what might best be described as successful stagnation under former coach Rick Barnes: Good regular seasons followed by postseason flops.

Now Smart faces his first ''big'' game with the Longhorns, facing No. 3 North Carolina (7-1) on Saturday. The Tar Heels started the season No. 1 and have their best player, Marcus Paige, back on the court after a preseason injury.

''I think it would be nice to have a win (Saturday) for a lot of reasons, playing one of the best teams in the country, one of the best programs in the country,'' Smart said. ''What a win like this would do is build a lot of confidence.''

Smart has been pretty honest in saying his team lacks a lot of ''naturally confident guys'' but senses that could be building with a three-game winning streak heading into Saturday.

''I think we still have a ways to go,'' Smart said.

There have been glimpses of the ''havoc'' pace and pressure Smart used at VCU but it has yet to become a Longhorns' trademark.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he's preparing for the aggressive, pressure style Smart is known for.

''I would think it's a change in what they're doing and it's hard to get them where Shaka wants them to be, I'm sure, but it's good enough that we worked press offense (Thursday) and we'll work press offense again (Friday),'' Williams said.

Longhorns fans had become bored of the early ousters in the NCAA Tournament. Former athletic director Steve Patterson fired Barnes after another exit last March and hired Smart, the up-and-coming coach at Virginia Commonwealth who had been on just about everyone's short list of candidates the last few years. After spurning previous chances to leave VCU, Smart finally said yes to the Texas offer.

Texas fans have yet to really take notice. Attendance at Tuesday's 116-51 win over Texas-San Antonio was maybe half the official announced crowd of about 9,600.

''That's a heartbreaker,'' Longhorns center Cam Ridley said after the game. ''We go to one of the biggest schools in the country.''

Freshman guard Tevin Mack called it ''kind of a letdown.''

Texas expects a much better turnout for the Tar Heels, who have won four in a row since a surprising loss at Northern Iowa.

North Carolina seems to be finding its rhythm after the early stumble. Paige missed the first six games due to a hand injury, but returned to score 20 in a win over No. 2 Maryland. The Tar Heels then romped over previously unbeaten Davidson.

Williams won't call his team ready for the postseason just yet.

''Neither of us have our team where we want them to be,'' Williams said.

His team has committed 15 turnovers in back-to-back games and now faces a Texas defense which forces 16.0 per contest while holding opponents to 37.3 percent shooting from the field.

Sophomore Justin Jackson has eight turnovers in the last two games, totaling 24 points in that span after averaging 22.7 in the final three games before Paige returned.

The Longhorns have won six of the past seven meetings, including the last two when they weren't ranked and North Carolina was. Texas won the last meeting 86-83 in Chapel Hill on Dec. 18, 2013, despite Paige's 23 points.

Isaiah Taylor paced the Longhorns that day with 16 points and currently averages a team-leading 13.3, though he's been quiet in the last two games with a combined 10 points. Ridley has stepped up to average 16.5 points on 16-of-22 shooting in those two games.

Ridley is averaging 9.5 rebounds but could have a tough time inside against 6-10 forwards Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, who each average 13.4 points and combine for 17.2 rebounds per game.

You May Like