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Young Texas team struggles in New York spotlight

For Shaka Smart and the Longhorns, a trip to Texas proved that a young roster isn't quite ready for the big stage.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Texas head coach Shaka Smart knew his young team would need time to develop this season. But facing Power 5 competition for the first time, the 22nd-ranked Longhorns didn’t just look disorganized or inexperienced. They looked overmatched.

After falling to Northwestern in the Legends Classic semifinals, Texas dropped its second straight game in a 68–54 loss to Colorado in the tournament consolation game on Tuesday night at Barclays Center. Texas hardly looked like a Big 12 contender or up-and-coming program this week, despite being ranked in the AP top 25 since the preseason.

“We’re just at a point now where we need to play more for each other and create more for each other,” Smart said after Tuesday’s game. “And as a coach I need to find ways how to make that happen.”

The Longhorns are as young and talented, but they are also raw and unpolished. Texas is replacing four starters from last year, and seven of the nine Longhorns who see significant playing time are sophomores or younger. That lack of experience showed in Brooklyn, as Texas struggled to find any offensive rhythm. Texas’s stagnant offensive sets failed to establish a consistent inside presence, create driving lanes or leave perimeter shooters open. The results were often cringe-worthy isolation plays and forced mid-range jumpers.

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Top scorer Tevin Mack had 18 points off the bench and was one of the team’s few bright spots against Northwestern, but managed only three points on one made field goal against Colorado. Prized freshman Jarrett Allen chipped in 15 points and six boards against the Buffaloes, but often looked tentative and uncomfortable on both ends. Allen had only five points and five rebounds along with five turnovers in the first game in New York.

The most concerning sign for Texas, however, was its lack of aggressiveness and execution. The Longhorns were out-rebounded 81­–63 by their two Legends Classic opponents, who scored a combined 36 second chance points compared to 18 for Texas. Even more perplexing were Texas’s struggles at the foul line; the Longhorns missed 14 of their 27 free throw attempts against Northwestern, and the team is shooting 63% on free throws this season.

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With two key players—Mack and Kerwin Roach Jr.—suspended for the season opener, the Longhorns struggled in a close victory over bottom-feeder Incarnate Word. But there was no such excuse this week to conceal Texas’s glaring flaws, only New York’s bright lights and a national television audience to expose them. Smart admitted that a lack of preparation might have hurt his team.

“I don’t think that we prepared as well as we needed to prior to coming up here,” Smart said Tuesday. “Maybe there was a little bit of a false sense in that we were 3­–0 against teams from smaller leagues, but the reality is when the competition goes up, you need to play better. We were unable to do that.”

Talented teams falling short of their potential is hardly a new phenomenon. Smart compared this Texas team to the team he coached at VCU in 2011–12, the season after the Rams’ Cinderella run to the Final Four. That team replaced three starters and struggled early on in the season before winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and earning a 12-seed in the NCAA tournament.

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This Texas team will have to go through a tough Big 12 schedule to get to the Big Dance. But even after this rough stretch of play, it’s too early to make a definitive call on how good the Longhorns truly are or how far they’ll go. There’s a lot of basketball to be played.

For now, Texas gets a much-needed break. The Longhorns won’t play another game until Nov. 29, giving Smart and the players a prime opportunity to regroup and refresh. But after sleepwalking through its first two real tests of the year, it’s time for Texas to play with passion. Smart knows it’s now more important than ever that his guys stick together.

“If you can’t have a clear mind from what goes into what we need to do next, then you’re in the wrong locker room,” he said. “I think adversity can be really good if you learn from it and that’s where we are.”

Come March, this week in Brooklyn could be seen as the turning point in a successful Longhorns season. Or it could be the harsh reality for a team unable to live up to its talent.