Texas coach Rick Barnes expected his team to go through some growing pains following the offseason departure of point guard D.J. Augustin.
Based on its back-to-back wins over ranked opponents, the team has made the necessary adjustments faster than Barnes imagined.
The sixth-ranked Longhorns look to continue their hot start as they host Texas State on Saturday.
The Longhorns (7-1) aren’t the same team without Augustin, last season’s leading scorer and playmaker who’s now in the NBA. But they haven’t struggled without him, adopting a slower-paced, more defensive-oriented game that’s helped keep them ranked among the top 10 all season despite having already faced three ranked teams.
Texas, which lost 81-80 to then-No. 8 Notre Dame on Nov. 25, held 12th-ranked UCLA to 39.4 percent shooting in a 68-64 win last Thursday before limiting 15th-ranked Villanova to 38.0 percent in a 67-58 victory Tuesday night.
“Our team’s got some answers. We can play a lot of different ways,” Barnes said. “One thing I know, and we talk about it, is that this team has the makings of being the best defensive team we’ve had at Texas. We don’t have to score a lot. This team is taking on its own identity.”
Texas is 13th in the country and first in the Big 12 in opponents’ field-goal percentage at 35.2. It’s also 20th overall and second in the conference in scoring defense, holding opponents to 56.9 points per game.
“We’ve been in some grinds, and tonight was a grind, it really was,” Barnes said Tuesday. “Our defense has been really good. People have a hard time scoring when we lock in and get our defense set.”
As focused as Barnes is on the defensive end, it’s hard for him not to acknowledge the offensive contributions of A.J. Abrams and Damion James, who combined to score 16 straight points when Texas pulled away to a double-digit lead late in the second half Tuesday.
“It was just that time of the game,” said Abrams, a senior guard who had 18 points in the second half and is averaging a career-high 19.0. “Me and Damion know we need to step up and our teammates know to get the ball in our hands in certain situations.”
That doesn’t bode well for Texas State (3-4), which has lost 19 straight games against Texas since 1938 to fall to 5-37 in the all-time series.
Abrams scored 20 points with three 3-pointers and 6-foot-10 Texas forward Connor Atchley had 26 points and 10 rebounds with four 3s in the Longhorns’ 96-81 win over the Bobcats last Dec. 15.
Texas State lost its most recent game, 100-94 at Rice last Saturday. John Rybak kept the Bobcats close in the first half with 24 points and six 3-pointers, but couldn’t keep it up in the second half, when he was held to eight points.
Still, the junior forward, who had been averaging 8.0 points and 4.0 rebounds this season, finished with career highs of 32 points, 10 boards and seven 3-pointers.
“I really feel bad because we wasted a spectacular performance by John Rybak,” Texas State coach Doug Davalos said. “He not only was scoring for us, but he played with a lot of energy on defense. It’s just a shame that we couldn’t get enough players to play good defense and make some key stops in the second half.”