A pair of the nation's most surprising teams and biggest rivals will square off when No. 5 Texas returns to the court for the first time in 10 days to host rising No. 24 Oklahoma on Tuesday in Big 12 Conference action in Austin, Texas.
The Longhorns (11-2, 5-1 Big 12) have not played since Jan. 16, when their shorthanded squad -- down to eight scholarship players because of COVID-19 -- overwhelmed Kansas State 82-67 at home. Starter Greg Brown and key reserves Brock Cunningham and Kai Jones were held out of the game and quarantined.
Texas' ensuing two games, at Iowa State and at TCU, were postponed because of COVID-19 and player availability protocols among the Cyclones and Horned Frogs, respectively.
The Longhorns' combination of regulars and reserves were more than up to the task against the Wildcats, with Andrew Jones leading the way with 19 points. Kamaka Hepa added a career-high-tying 15 points on a career-best 5-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc, while Jericho Sims and Courtney Ramey scored 14 points apiece.
"We knew with those three guys out, we were going to need major contributions from some guys that hadn't played as much," said Texas coach Shaka Smart, who announced Monday he tested positive for COVID-19.
Hepa had seen action in just three of Texas' first 12 games and played a combined total of 8:15. He was on the court for 25:42 against the Wildcats.
The three Texas players who missed the Kansas State game are likely to return against Oklahoma, but Hepa has done more than enough to ensure himself some added playing time on one of the nation's deepest teams.
"(Hepa) is going to be highly successful in life," Smart said. "When he gets done playing basketball, I've told him he's probably going to be our boss someday in whatever it is that he wants to do. He gives off an incredible energy and has this spirit about him that is infectious and very, very positive. He's the most engaged and excited guy there is. And he can play."
Oklahoma heads to Austin with plenty of momentum via a 75-68 home win over then-No. 9 Kansas on Saturday. The Sooners (9-4, 5-3) have won their past three games overall but have lost their last three road games -- at then-No. 6 Kansas, at No. 2 Baylor and at Xavier.
De'Vion Harmon led Oklahoma with 22 points in Saturday's victory, with Austin Reaves scoring 16 and Umoja Gibson adding 10 points. The Sooners enjoyed a plus-10 rebounding advantage in the win and has shown improved defense during their recent winning streak.
"Our guys have really made a lot of progress rebounding the basketball and being aggressive on the boards -- there's no question that's a big difference in our team right now," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. "That and the ability defensively to get up into the ball a little bit more and get into the 3-point shooters."
"The guys continue to make progress," Kruger added. "They're really a team that focuses well in practice on getting better individually, as well as a group. And in the Big 12, you have to keep doing that."
--Field Level Media