Texas’ first week ever as a No. 1 team may have been its most trying of the season.
This week could prove even more treacherous for the top-ranked Longhorns, beginning with Monday night’s game at No. 13 Kansas State.
In its best start in 77 seasons, Texas knocked off 14 of its first 15 opponents by double digits and won seven games by at least 25 points. That helped the Longhorns achieve the first top ranking in program history Jan. 11, supplanting Big 12 rival Kansas.
Staying on top, though, hasn’t proved easy.
In its first game as the No. 1 team, Texas (17-0, 3-0) trailed by two at halftime at Iowa State before going ahead early in the second half en route to a 90-83 victory Wednesday. The Longhorns then fell behind by 10 with 15:40 remaining against visiting Texas A&M on Saturday night but rallied to force overtime.
Damion James helped Texas remain one of two unbeaten teams by scoring seven of his 26 points in the extra period of a 72-67 win.
As much as it was challenged in that first week in the top spot, Texas will face perhaps an even greater test over the next six days. After taking on the Wildcats, the Longhorns play at No. 15 Connecticut on Saturday.
“This is what you play for,” James said. “This is how you make a name for yourself as a team.”
Texas starts the week looking for its third straight win at Bramlage Coliseum, although the Longhorns split the last four overall meetings with Kansas State (15-2, 2-1).
The Longhorns needed Dexter Pittman’s four points in the final 1:14 for a 61-58 victory over the Wildcats in last season’s Big 12 tournament quarterfinals March 12. Kansas State took the first matchup of 2008-09, getting a career-best 44 points from Denis Clemente in an 85-81 overtime home win Jan. 31.
With 14.9 points per game this season, Clemente is among the leading scorers for one of the nation’s top offensive teams, as Kansas State averages 83.1 points.
Junior guard Jacob Pullen is averaging 19.7 points and shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range, ranking him second in the Big 12 in both categories. He has scored in double figures in all 17 games.
After his team opened conference play with a loss to Missouri, Clemente scored a season-high 24 points to help the Wildcats rebound with an 88-65 victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday night, their school-record 13th in a row at Bramlage.
They followed by shooting 54 free throws - making 38 - and holding off Colorado 87-81 at Boulder on Saturday. Clemente scored 11 of his 15 points from the line, while Pullen hit three 3-pointers and scored a team-best 18.
“We understand we’re getting ready to walk into a buzz saw,” coach Frank Martin said of facing Texas. “That’s why those kids signed up and came to play for us. Those are the kinds of games they wanted to be in.”
James has helped Texas fare even better than Kansas State offensively. The Longhorns average 87.2 points thanks in part to James, who is averaging 17.8 on the season and has scored at least 20 in four straight games.
The senior swingman, second in the Big 12 with 11.2 rebounds per game, will be seeking a conference-record 48th double-double, surpassing former Texas All-American Chris Mihm.
James, already the Big 12’s all-time leading rebounder, has one double-double in four career matchups with the Wildcats. He was held to single digits in points and rebounds in the other three games.
If he can help the Longhorns to a victory Monday, it would give them the fourth-longest win streak in school history.
Kansas State leads the series 10-9, but five of those wins came when the schools were in different conferences.