Texas is currently halfway through its brutal 6 game stretch. In my "Murderer's Row" preview, I posited that 3-3 was an attainable goal. Well, so much for that optimism. Three games in, and the young Horns have notched three losses. Well, a 3-3 split is still in arm's reach. It's just a really, really, Mr. Fantastic-like long arm.
vs. Iowa State (Tue Jan 24, 8:00p, LHN)
Texas fans who hate continued dominance from the Bill Snyder Junior College Family Tree may end up despising the Cyclones. Desperate for a program that mattered, Iowa State hired an alum with no previous coaching experience in Fred Hoiberg, who saw his easiest path to success paved with transfers. Enter a quartet of flameouts: Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Allen (Michigan State), Chris Babb (Penn State) and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois). Oh, you may have heard of them, all right. In Iowa State's win over Texas, they combined for 55 of ISU's 77 points.
The Cyclones currently sport a 4-2 conference record and are 14-5 overall. Thing is, they're just not that good. ISU has no notable non-conference wins, and their victory against Texas is the only noteworthy win. But can the Cyclones come into Austin and beat the Horns? Abso-friggin'-lutely.
Sophomore Royce White leads the team in practically every per minute category (13.3 PPG, 9.3 RPB, 4.5 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 3.7 TPG). Against Texas, he got to the line 17 times and luckily sank only 8 of those. White's a matchup nightmare for Texas but the Horns' big men should be flying high after limiting KU's Thomas Robinson on Saturday. Fellow bigs Melvin Ejim and Anthony Booker look like JAGs, but so do Texas' big men most times.
Chris Allen is a scoring-inclined point guard that can't really shoot. It also helps that he's not a good passer. I'm fairly certain that Michigan St. is happier with their Keith Appling-Travis Trice PG duo. Allen won't hesitate to shoot the 3, and neither will his backcourt mates Scott Christopherson, Royce Babb, and Tyrus McGee. They've combined to knock down 38.5% on 392 3-pt attempts. As a team against Texas, Iowa St. hit 10 of 21.
To win, Texas needs to harass White and, ideally, get him in a little bit of foul trouble. On the perimeter, the Horns need to do a better job of identifying shooters and not letting them hoist open jumpers. In Big 12 play, Texas has allowed opponents to shoot 41.0% from beyond the arc, and if they let Iowa State make shot after downtown shot, it could be a long night.
Personally, I think Texas comes ready to play and notches a comfortable victory. Given that the game is on LHN, I'll have to settle for following on the Twitter while watching reruns of Chopped.
@ Baylor (Sat Jan 28, 12:00p, CBS)
The Baylor Bears are Texas' biggest matchup nightmare in the conference. The Bears are looooong in the frontcourt, have one of the most athletic small forwards in the nation, and possess specialist skills on the perimeter. They also lack any kind of notable experience and are (barely) coached by Scott Drew.
After starting the season 17-0, Baylor has dropped its last two. They were dominated on the road by Kansas and then at home against Missouri. Their undefeated start had a lot of national media throwing around terms like "Elite" and "#1 seed." At the time, I cautioned that KU and Mizzou may knock them down a peg or two. Now I'm not always right and usually mostly wrong, but I'd like to pat my back for that one. Baylor's still on par with Missouri talent-wise, with the Tigers skewing backcourt while the Bears are frontcourt heavy. But Missouri has the experience and Kansas has the coaching, and Baylor may find itself in third place by the time Big 12 play concludes.
They're still a matchup nightmare for Texas, though. Sophomore Perry Jones and freshman Quincy Miller are the two highest rated draft prospects in the Big 12. They can score (13.7 PPG / 12.9 PPG) and defend, but sometimes look uncomfortable coexisting together. Wing Quincy Acy has no such problem. He can play on any team in the country and on my team any day. He's a high-flyer and explosive finisher. If any of them are struggling or in foul trouble, Baylor can go to its ridiculously deep bench. Senior Anthony Jones would probably start for some lesser high major teams, and Cory Jefferson is a sophomore who could explode (a la Acy last year) when Jones and Miller leave.
Frankly, I'm not quite sure how the Texas bigs can keep up with these horses, but they'll have to try. Fairly or not, the Bears have been labeled as "soft", and, in contrast to their Elite 8 team two years ago, don't have a true center like Josh Lomers or defensive paint terror like Ekpe Udoh. I guess the "punch 'em in the mouth" philosophy applies. Clint Chapman and Jaylen Bond will have to be aggressive offensively, and Jonathan Holmes needs to be fresh off of chasing around ISU's White and do the same on Acy.
Their backcourt has a bunch of nice pieces but no star. The Bears continue to stubbornly start AJ Walton, despite his inability to shoot (68 FGA) or stop turning over the ball (33.4% TO Rate). Like the rest of the country, I prefer Pierre Jackson, who actually plays more minutes than Walton overall (68 to 51% of min played). Jackson can shoot (49.3% 3-Pt%) and dish (40.3% ARate). He's a first-year JuCo transfer, and as he gains game experience, he'll get better and better. Brady Heslip is one of the best long distance gunners in the country (47.0% 3-Pt%) and looks even more annoying than Aaron Bruce. Freshman Deuce Bello is the only one with true 2-guard length, but he's more athlete than basketball player at this point in his career.
The defense is susceptible, and the Tigers shredded it to the point where Drew temporarily abandoned his base 1-3-1 zone for a terribly run man-to-man D. The key is to avoid Baylor's interior length and attack from the wings. Good games from Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan would be ideal, and Myck Kabongo and J'Covan Brown need to identify and attack the soft spots in the zone. Texas is also a good offensive rebounding team, and should be able to sneak by Baylor's big men to crash the glass (see the punch 'em in the mouth philosophy). A high scoring game is probably Texas' best bet, but I don't foresee a win in Waco.
vs. Missouri (Mon Jan 30, 8:00p, ESPN)
I already covered Missouri's personnel for their first matchup (see here).
In the first matchup, Missouri's shooters basically blitzkrieged Texas early, and even J'Covan's big night couldn't bring the Longhorns within striking distance. Missouri is going to make its fair share of shots; the key is to try and limit their offensive efficiency as much as possible.
I'm hopeful that Clint Chapman will bring his A game against Ricardo Ratliffe, and to do so, Chapman will have to avoid the quick fouls that took him out of rhythm in Columbia. Texas should also look to be the aggressor in the paint, and some hard-nosed play from Jaylen Bond may be just what the doctor ordered. I thought his 9 minutes were too little last game, as he's got the ideal size to knock Ratliffe out of his comfort zone.
Against Missouri's four guard lineup, Rick Barnes chose to start off playing zone. His rationale was that he didn't want his freshmen chasing around Kim English. Instead, Texas just let Marcus Denmon burn them instead. Yes, the Tigers have a multitude of weapons. But so do the Longhorns (they're just way less experienced and efficient!), and they need to use them. Missouri has no answer on the wing for the bigger Jonathan Holmes (10 points, 7 rebounds last game), and Myck Kabongo has a significant height and gallop advantage over the small Phil Pressey. If Texas can avoid falling into an early hole, the home crowd noise and team confidence should build, hopefully culminating in a win. And hey, maybe J'Covan j'goes for 30+ again.
Not pulling out a victory against Kansas St. or Kansas hurts, but the Longhorns still have a shot at a couple of wins heading into a much easier second half conference schedule. Let's hook those W's, Rick.