In Vegas, I got into a long argument with the man at the roulette wheel over what I considered to be an odd number. ~Steven Wright
Las Vegas can be an odd place, indeed, especially their sports book numbers. Tonight Texas has been installed as a paltry 1 point favorite over the mighty Texas A&M Aggies—a team coming off a double digit loss to talentless Nebraska, and a team Texas throttled just a few games ago. So, what gives? Vegas is handicapping on history here, the Aggies always play the Longhorns tough at Reed Arena, and great teams that come off big wins in college hoops are always ripe for the upset when traveling on short rest to tough venues. See St. John’s vs. Duke.
But Vegas has been wrong before, especially about the 2011 Texas Longhorns. The Horns are a ridiculous 13-3 against the spread in their last 16 games. In a pick ‘em game, I think I’ll pick the Horns against the Ags and here’s why.
The Aggie Backcourt
You’re going to have a hard time finding a less talented backcourt in the Big 12 than what the Aggies roll out. Not only are Dash Harris and BJ Holmes tiny by division 1 standards, but they both have gaping holes in their game. Harris shoots about 18% from deep and 28% overall. Sure he can get to the rim on the dribble, so why wouldn’t you give him all the cushion in the world to guard himself. He’s what the headband/rec-sports goggles wearing spaz at your local pickup game would call a self-check when shooting the jumper.
As for Holmes, he’s a credible shooter who's hitting 39% from deep, but his size means he’s easily contested and when coupled with a lack of blow-by ability he's probably left difficult to guard than Harris. Defensively, this pair can be had, especially Holmes. Look for the ballscreen game with Cory Joseph to be a huge part of what we do tonight, but more on that later.
First off the bench is Naji Hibbert, an electric 6-6 guard out of Maryland who gives the Aggies a real spark. I’m shocked he’s not getting more than 20 minutes per, because he’s much more talented than either Holmes or Harris. Hibbert shoots it at about 46% from deep, but he’s athletic enough to get to the rack and finish.
The Aggie Frontcourt
The Aggies forwards are an analog of their counterparts from Austin. Loubeau is not as athletic as Thompson, but forward Nathan Walkup is a face up four like Gary Johnson, and small forward Khris Middleton is a traditionally sized 3 in the mold of Jordan Hamilton. That’s a good news/bad news deal for the Aggies. Against most clubs A&M enjoys mismatches along the frontcourt, but against Texas the Aggie frontcourt personnel nearly guarantees Texas can play their best offensive lineup without fear of mismatches on the other end.
Loubeau is the banger of the group so expect Wangmene and Hill to log significant minutes this game unlike the Mizzou tilt. Walkup can float behind the arc where he’s shooting 37% from deep. Johnson has the chops to tag Walkup on the perimeter if he’s not caught napping. On the other end, GJ should be able to make some hay on the glass and with his post-up game because Walkup lacks Gary’s strength.
Middleton may be the X-factor because he’s certainly the Ags’ best player and he’ll be going against Hamilton who’s just an average defender at this point in his career. Helpside defense, especially when Middleton is on the ball, will be key for Texas in this game.
Keys to the Game
Officiating. A tightly officiated game certainly benefits the Horns because they have much more skill 1-5 than the Aggies. Turgeon is going to want to turn this game into an ugly halfcourt to halfcourt battle and he’ll need the refs to swallow their whistles to be successful.
J’Covan Brown. First and foremost, Mark Turgeon is not going to guard Dogus Balbay when he’s in the game. He’ll have BJ Holmes or Dash Harris camp out on the dotted circle to muck up our off the ball screening game, cutters in the paint, and post up attack. Texas will either need to get into transition to free up Balbay or be patient enough to use Balbay as a screener, but rest assured that Turgeon won’t do Texas a favor and guard Balbay 20 feet from the bucket like some of your more stubborn coaches do.
This means in order for Texas to spread the floor and challenge Texas A&M’s weak guards, J’Covan Brown has to use his powers for good rather than evil in this contest. He has to quit pouting and just go play. We need him on the ball extending the Aggie defense so Hamilton and Thompson can work their flex screen magic and Gary Johnson can operate with more room. Brown’s presence on the floor also means Texas can use non-scoring bigs like Hill and Wangmene to help absorb A&M’s body blows inside.
Texas can ill-afford to have Hill and Balbay in this game at the same time because it plays right into Turgeon’s plan to make the thing ugly.
Screen and Roll. Another reason Brown is important this game is his presence along with Joseph guarantees Texas can get the mismatch they want against the smallish Holmes. Look for the Horns to ball screen the hell out of the 5-10 Holmes with whoever he chooses to cover. Both Brown and Joseph are terrific screen and roll or pick and pop options when paired with Tristan Thompson or Gary Johnson respectively. Holmes doesn’t have the strength to fight through the ball screen to close the hedge gap, nor does he have the size to contest the jumper because he gives up at least 5 inches to both Brown and Joseph.
Consequently, whoever’s hedging for the Aggies is going to be under tremendous pressure to make sure the dribbler is under control before rotating back to his man. That should free up Gary Johnson for all you can eat 15 footers and the athletic Tristan Thompson for free runs at the goal. When help-side over rotates to the "roll", Texas’ best scorer Hamilton should be available along the baseline. Just watch, the screen/roll will be a staple when Holmes, Brown, and Joseph are on the floor together.
Guards on the Glass. Balbay and Joseph have done such a terrific job of digging down on defense to clean up long rebounds or even pull rebounds in traffic in some instances for most of the year. Their services on the glass will be especially important in this ballgame because the Aggies struggle to shoot it well and will need to steal some possessions on the offensive glass if they want to beat Texas. Neither Balbay or Joseph should be worried too much about block out responsibilities vs. Harris or Holmes, so their size and athleticism should be utilized with free runs to the defensive backboards.
Tired Legs. A lot can be made of tired legs off a one day rest, but it's important to note that Texas did nothing but watch film yesterday so they should be good to go physically. Also, guys like Wangmene and Brown should be well rested because they haven't really played in a few days. As for the Aggies, they played a lot of defense in their knock out drag out battle with the Huskers in Lincoln, so I doubt their legs will be any fresher than Texas.
Prediction. The Vegas line scares me because some really smart folks think the game is a toss-up. But as I pointed out before, Vegas has been wrong before, especially about this Texas club. I’d like to think Barking Carnival is a little more dialed in on this front. I’m going to go with 68 to 62 Texas in workmanlike fashion.