Almost one year later, Texas is hoping it is wiser and better.
The eighth-ranked Longhorns get a chance to prove just how far they’ve come in that span Saturday when they host No. 12 Connecticut in this season’s edition of a high-profile home-and-home non-conference series.
For the second straight January, Texas (12-2) enters this contest with designs on a deep NCAA tournament run. The Longhorns have beaten Michigan State, North Carolina and Arkansas for a second consecutive season and won six straight overall, but a victory over the Huskies (11-2) could do wonders for their collective psyche ahead of Big 12 play.
Connecticut caught Texas at the perfect time last season when the teams played in Hartford on Jan. 23. Coming off their first loss after a 17-0 start, the Longhorns collapsed in the second half of an 88-74 defeat to the Huskies - getting outscored 54-32 in the final 20 minutes and starting a tailspin that sent Texas from the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll to an eventual first-round NCAA tournament loss to Wake Forest as a No. 8 seed.
“We didn’t expect to lose to UConn,” senior guard Dogus Balbay said this week. “And after that, we started losing games.”
Defensively, Balbay will lead the challenge of trying to slow down UConn guard Kemba Walker. The senior leads Division I players in scoring at 26.1 points per game and had 19 in a supporting role in last season’s Huskies’ victory.
Longhorns senior forward Gary Johnson thinks the outcome has a chance to be different this time because of improved team chemistry.
“The guys pull for each other and we have fun on the court,” he said. “It’s too early to tell if we’re a Final Four team at this point, but we’re in a pretty good situation right now.”
Johnson is one of four players averaging in double figures at 11.8 points, but underclassmen have been Texas’ primary scorers. Sophomore Jordan Hamilton averages a team-high 19.6 points, and freshman forward Tristan Thompson has contributed 12.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
Connecticut is trying to avoid consecutive losses after a 73-70 defeat at No. 14 Notre Dame on Monday. Walker finished with 21 points, but was hounded into an 8-for-23 shooting effort by Ben Hansbrough and missed all five of his 3-point attempts.
Coach Jim Calhoun, who was not on the sidelines for last season’s victory over the Longhorns due to illness, is expecting more from his frontcourt players to lessen Walker’s burden.
“Kemba was well defended tonight,” Calhoun said after the loss. “In my opinion, he was bodied tonight but that wasn’t what beat us. We did not get the productivity we needed inside.”
The starting frontcourt of Roscoe Smith, Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu combined for 13 points, with Oriakhi - a 6-foot-9 sophomore who averages 10.5 points and 8.4 rebounds - going scoreless in 23 minutes before fouling out.
In victories over ranked teams Michigan State and Kentucky that helped UConn win the Maui Invitational, Oriakhi averaged 16.5 points and 14.0 rebounds. In Connecticut’s two losses to ranked opponents Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, he’s averaged 4.0 points and 3.5 rebounds.
Texas has won 27 straight non-conference home games, but trails this series 4-2 all-time.