Texas has won each of its first six games by double digits, but coach Rick Barnes is still striving to make his emerging team even better.
Before a pair of marquee matchups later this month, the second-ranked Longhorns have a good opportunity to work on their game with three straight home contests beginning Monday night against Long Beach State.
Texas is off to its third 6-0 start in five seasons, but the Longhorns have been especially impressive this time around, winning by an average of 26.2 points. They boast one of the nation’s top defenses, limiting opponents to 52.3 points and 32.4 percent shooting.
Barnes, however, wasn’t completely pleased with his team’s effort during a 77-59 win at Rice on Nov. 29. After jumping to a 17-point lead in the second half, Texas allowed the Owls to get within five with 7:22 remaining. The Longhorns buckled down and allowed only five points after that.
Texas applied that lesson in Thursday night’s 69-50 win over visiting Southern California, forcing a season-high 17 turnovers and allowing the Trojans to shoot 30.4 percent.
“Everything starts with defense,” point guard Dogus Balbay said.
However, the Longhorns’ struggles at the free-throw line continued with a 19-for-34 performance, which dropped their season percentage to 62.2. They were also held to less than 42.0 percent shooting for the second consecutive game.
“We did the things that we talked about doing,” Barnes said. “Offensively, we missed some shots, but if we made some more free throws, we’d feel better about our shooting.”
Barnes’ team, though, will have this game and matchups against Texas State on Dec. 12 and Texas-Pan American on Dec. 15 to work out those kinks.
That improvement could prove crucial in the week before Christmas. Texas will face No. 10 North Carolina on Dec. 19 at Cowboys Stadium, a game that’s expected to draw 75,000 fans. Three days later, the Longhorns will host No. 9 Michigan State.
One player who seems to need little help is Damion James, who rebounded from an eight-point performance against Rice with a team-high 19 on Thursday. He’s leading the Longhorns with 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
James was 2 years old when these schools last met on Dec. 14, 1989. Long Beach State’s Lucious Harris, who would later play 12 seasons in the NBA, hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer for an 89-87 victory in Austin.
The Longhorns, however, will face an inconsistent 49ers team Monday.
Long Beach State (4-3) suffered an 85-62 blowout to No. 8 West Virginia in its 76 Classic opener on Nov. 26. The next day, its rally fell short in an 87-79 loss to No. 19 Clemson despite three players recording double-doubles.
The 49ers, picked to win the Big West Conference, ended the tournament with their first-ever win over UCLA, 79-68 on Nov. 29.
Sophomore forward T.J. Robinson, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, averaged 25.0 points and 14.0 rebounds over the final two games of the Classic. Robinson has registered 16.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game this season.
Sophomore guard Larry Anderson, a preseason all-conference pick, totaled 15 points and went 3 for 12 from the field during the tournament.
Texas and Long Beach State have split their six all-time meetings with the Longhorns winning two of three at home.