As Scipio Tex pointed out in his Texas A&M post-mortem, the Texas Longhorns basketball team faces a brutal six game stretch starting Saturday.
@Mizzou, @KSU, KU, ISU, @Baylor, Mizzou
On the plus side, all of those games (save for ISU) aren't being broadcast on the Longhorn Network. So you can actually see your team play. PROGRESS!
For those unfamiliar, those opponents comprise the top four teams in the conference, ranked as follows by Ken Pomeroy: KU (2), Mizzou (8), Baylor (11), KSU (15). Texas (25) is arguably better than Iowa State (51) but certainly didn't prove it by losing to the Cyclones in Ames.
It's very conceivable that Texas goes 1-5 or 0-6 over the next few weeks. 3-3 is probably the high-water mark, and even 2-4 is acceptable. The Horns' back nine conference schedule isn't nearly as daunting, but at some point Texas will need to beat one of the big boys to prove to the tournament committee that they can be competitive come March.
Let's tackle the first 3 games of that stretch, then pray to the Basketball Gods that a win or two is forthcoming.
@ Missouri (Sat Jan 14, 12:00p, ESPN2)
The Tigers are an offensive-minded stathead's dream. No one in their core rotation has an O-Rtg under 100. Stat-friendly SIer Luke Winn pointed out that the Tigers are one of "only two teams in the nation [that] have three players with Offensive Ratings over 120 and usage rates over 20 percent."
They're the most experienced team in the Big 12 and talented to boot. Leading the charge is top scorer Marcus Denmon, a 17.9 PPG scorer. He's wickedly efficient (137.6 O-Rtg, 64.8% TS%), doesn't turn the ball over, and has nifty hands on defense. Other than that, he stinks. No really: if it wasn't for KU's Thomas Robinson, Denmon would be a runaway for Big 12 POY. Fellow swingman Kim English is an even more efficient shooter (68.7% eFG% is 2nd best in the nation) and a load on the defensive end. He's also exceptionally funny on Twitter.
Both are seniors, along with their primary big man Ricardo Ratliffe. Ratliffe's picked up the slack after fellow big Laurence Bowers tore an ACL prior to the start of the year. Would you believe he's even more efficient than Denmon and English? His eFG% is an unreal 76.8%, which would be far and away in first except he falls just short of Pomeroy's minutes qualification.
Glue guys Michael Dixon, Matt Pressey, and Steve Moore don't take anything away. Matt's brother Phil Pressey (from Dallas Episcopal) has developed into a catalyst in his sophomore year. He's not a natural shooter but is dishing 5.8 APG.
Texas actually matches up pretty well with Missouri. The Tigers look to score efficiently, but aren't big on crashing the boards. Because of size limitations, they can scored against, but look out for carelessness as their guards will pick pockets. Prior to Big 12 play, the Tigers were dominant (average margin of victory of 24.3 pts in undefeated non-con play), but came back to earth with a blowout loss at KSU and a close win at ISU.
Unfortunately for Texas, this game is being played at Columbia. To win, Texas will need to use their size well. Clint Chapman actually gets the benefit of being the tallest player in this game. Along with Wangmene and Jaylen Bond, Chapman will need to control the paint on dribble drives and on the glass. The Horns' guard speed is also important. Brown likely still won't be at 100%, but McCllelan and Lewis were great pestering Texas A&M. The Mizzou guards are a harder challenge, but hopefully Texas is up for some running and gunning.
@ Kansas St. (Wed Jan 18, 8:00p, ESPN2)
The Wildcats have subscribed to the Ewing Theory this year. The departure of their two best players, Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly (combined, 53% of shots taken), has actually made Kansas St. better. They're doing it through team-oriented play and tenacious defense.
Rodney McGruder has stepped up as the alpha dog with 14.3 PPG and 5.1 RPG. Though he's regressed from long distance (31.6% down from 40.8%), he's become a more efficient scorer (47.6% FG%, 56.0% TS%) overall. Jamar Samuels is their second leading scorer (11.1 PPG), and I fancy him as McGruder in small forward form. It'd be nice if Texas could've sicced Jordan Hamilton and Cory Joseph on them, but we can't, so we won't. Instead, Texas'll just have to contraction them into submission.
Sophomore point guard Will Spradling has made a huge jump as an offensive threat. Unlike Pressey, he's a scorer, not a distributor (11.1 PPG, 2.9 APG) and Kabongo will have to adjust his defensive mentality accordingly. He's also one of my favorite players in college basketball, and not just because he looks like he should be playing Settlers of Catan on Saturday afternoons instead of suiting up in a basketball uni.
There's not much more to really say about the returnees. Center Jordan Henriquez and guards Martavious Irving and Shane Southwell stuck through last year's trying times and have provided quality PT. They're JAGs in the mold of a Justin Mason or Clint Chapman. The Wildcats are also getting minutes from two freshmen: Thomas Gipson, an inefficient volume scorer, and backup point Angel Rodriguez (passer, not scorer, natch).
Kansas St.'s Four Factors profile is scary in that it's almost an exact mirror of Texas'. On offense, the Wildcats don't shoot well and turn the ball over, but they grab extra points by rebounding and getting to the line. It's opposite on D: force terrible shooting and careless ballhandling, but suck at grabbing boards and limiting fouls.
I don't have a great read on K-State against Texas: I guess whichever team avoids bad habits will win. I do think Texas is more talented than Kansas St., but that's a worthless advantage if all the diaper dandies decide to get freshmen yips on the road.
vs. Kansas (Sat Jan 21, 3:00p, CBS)
Would it surprise you to know that Kansas is good again? If not, let me point you to the 7 straight conference titles the Jayhawks have won. Aside from a puzzling loss to Davidson, Kansas has been money. Close losses to Kentucky and Duke, wins against Ohio State (sans Sullinger), Georgetown, and Kansas St. Rock Chalk fans expect another Conference championship, and that's not a stretch.
However, Kansas is simply less talented than prior iterations. Its only surefire NBAer is Thomas Robinson, arguably the National POY at midseason. Robinson is averaging 17.6 PPG and 12.1 RPB against some pretty awesome competition. His defensive rebounding percentage of 32.2% is first in the nation. Dude's beastmode.
Beyond that is dregs, and I honestly have no idea how Bill Self coaxed all this production out of them. Tyshawn Taylor is a fan of both real and virtual fighting without the Machete production to back it up. Oh sure, he's scoring 14.8 PPG, but he's shooting just 43.8% from the field and is a turnover machine.
I like swingman Elijah Johnson as a defender/passer and Travis Releford as a scorer/rebounder, but I'd like them a lot more if they were one player named Elivis Releson. I'm also amazed that Jeff Withey has been effective this year. He's been invisible for three years (redshirted his first year), but has become one of the nation's leading defenders (2.9 BPG, 14.9% blk%). His profile reminds me of Josh Lomers, but Withey is more athletic and an agile defender instead of just a big one.
Connor Teahan is their most potent offensive weapon after Robinson (29-74 from 3pt, 58.2 eFG%) but plays defense about as well as a trash can or Jordan Hamilton in his freshman year. I honestly have no idea why Kevin Young doesn't play more, as he's efficient on both ends of the court (63.5 eFG%, 2.7 Blk%, 3.2 Stl%). When needed, Self will also buy minutes with freshman Naadir Tharpe and sophomore Justin Wesley.
Of all 3 games, I'm most favoring a win against Kansas. Most importantly, the game is at home, a huge factor even in the apathetic Erwin Center. Secondly, I'm just not a fan of Kansas' talent level and think they can be beat. On the other hand, Bill Self is a heckuva coach. Despite their offensive limitations, the Jayhawks have been defensive studs, and that doesn't bode well for a team as offensively-challenged as Texas. Actually, I'm probably underselling KU's defensive wizardly with all the bashing of their offense. For me, the Jayhawks are in a group with Wisconsin, Michigan State and Kentucky amongst the best defenses in the nation.
Oh well, throw all the analysis out the window. I'm calling for the win. We may need it after back-to-back road losses.