Texas hadn’t been tested as it cruised to nine straight wins to open the season, but it looked every bit like a Final Four contender in knocking off the defending national champions the last time out.
The second-ranked Longhorns would love to do the same to last season’s other title game participant.
A second major challenge in four days awaits Texas on Tuesday night when it hosts No. 9 Michigan State, which has followed up its championship game loss by dropping its first two games against major conference opponents.
The Spartans (9-2) and Longhorns were ranked second and third, respectively, in the preseason, an unsurprising reward for Michigan State after its title-game run but perhaps more curious for a Texas team that lost top scorer A.J. Abrams and made a second-round tournament exit.
So far, though, it’s been the Longhorns (10-0) who have been the more impressive team. Texas has won its first 10 games by an average of 28.8 points - only top-ranked Kansas’ 30.5-point margin is larger - and has averaged 100.3 points in its past four victories.
Four Longhorns scored at least 20 points apiece Saturday as they ran past No. 10 North Carolina 103-90 at Cowboys Stadium.
“We knew we had to come today and send a message to the nation that we’re not playing around, that we can also go against good competition,” said Dexter Pittman, who had 23 points and a season-high 15 rebounds. “We showed that.”
Texas is averaging 87.2 points through 10 games - 12.9 more than it was scoring at the same point last season.
Pittman (14.6 points and a nation-best 73.4 percent from the field) and Damion James (team highs of 16.4 points and 10.6 rebounds) have stepped up to lessen the blow of Abrams’ departure.
“I think if we play to our potential, we can beat everybody we play,” coach Rick Barnes said.
As good as Texas has looked offensively this season, it hasn’t done the same in recent years against Michigan State. The teams have met in November or December in each of the past three seasons, with the Spartans winning the three games - all on neutral courts - by an average of 4.0 points.
“We haven’t lost to them since I’ve been here, and I don’t plan to start now,” said reigning Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas, who’s averaged 14.5 points in two games against Texas. “But it’ll be a dogfight. And if we start well, we can’t get satisfied. We’ve got to stay on our toes.”
The Longhorns have averaged 65.3 points on 37.8 percent shooting in the three losses. Pittman (six points and 1 of 6 shooting) struggled in last season’s 67-63 loss, though Gary Johnson scored a career-high 20 points.
Goran Suton led the way with 18 points for Michigan State, and Suton is the only major loss for a Spartans team that has fallen to Florida and North Carolina in a title game rematch.
Lucas, has upped his scoring average to 16.1, but his biggest improvement has come in his shooting percentage. Lucas shot 39.5 percent as a junior but is at 50.4 percent so far, including 42.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Lucas was just 3 of 9 on Saturday, a day after Michigan State wrapped up final exams, but Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe each scored 14 in an 80-58 win over IPFW.
“Our guys went through a lot this week, and to have to take nine days off and then we had finals was nerve-wracking for me,” coach Tom Izzo said.
Michigan State’s last visit to Austin came in March 2005, when it sealed a spot in the Final Four with a thrilling double-overtime victory against Kentucky.
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