Do you believe? The Texas Longhorns basketball program has a chance to double down on quality wins. Texas notched a baller road win at North Carolina on Tuesday. The young Horns immediately turn around to face the experienced and talented Michigan St. Spartans, ranked fifth in the nation. Traditionally, Rick Barnes' squad has fared well against running, loose teams like UNC while struggling against plodding, fundamentally sound Big 10 teams. It's time to see if this 10-1 Texas team is up to the challenge.
Isaiah Taylor will have his hands full.Appling: Appling looks a lot like a typical Kansas point guard. He's built with a scorer's mentality and a propensity to make bad decisions. His maturation over the past few seasons has been frustratingly incremental rather than exponential, but Appling has taken a big step up this year. He's scoring 16.0 PPG and dishing out 5.0 APG, but his biggest improvement shows up in his efficiency stats. His assist rate is up while turnovers are down, and he has hit exactly 50% of his 3's while shooting over 50% overall from the field. In short,
Gary Harris: Arguably the Spartans' most talented player, Harris would have been a strong lottery consideration had he declared for the NBA Draft after his freshman year. Unfortunately for the All-American candidate, his hard-nosed style of play has often led to the injury bug. The 6' 4" Harris has sat out 3 of the last 4 games and struggled with a hobbled ankle in a loss to North Carolina. As I write this, he's questionable to play against Texas. If he returns, the Longhorns will need to smartly deploy its wing athletes to shut down Sparty's leading scorer (17.6 PPG).
Valentine: With Harris' status in flux, I'm penciling in Valentine to a starting role. Even with Harris available, Michigan St. will run out three-guard sets with the 6' 5" Valentine flanking Appling and Harris on the perimeter. There was some expectation that Valentine would serve as Sparty's "X-factor" scoring machine this year, but he hasn't yet improved from an up-and-down freshman year. Valentine scored just 2 points against UNC and followed that up with an 0-fer against Oakland. He's the guy that needs to step up when Harris is slowed. It hasn't happened.
Branden Dawson: One of my favorite college players, Dawson reminds me of Gary Johnson. Early career injuries sapped Dawson of some of his explosiveness, but he's tough, tenacious, and smart. He often functions as an undersized 4, and doesn't possess the range to play the 3 in the pros. At 6' 6", Dawson shouldn't lead the team in rebounding, but he does with 9.1 RPG. The Spartans aren't a strong offensive rebounding team, but if there's one guy crashing the glass on offense, chances are Dawson is that guy.
Adreian Payne: The 6' 10" senior will be Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh's toughest test to date. Payne possesses a rare big man combination of both talent and experience. A senior big like Payne on a major program like Michigan St. is a competitive advantage. Payne is a former five-star recruit (in the same heralded class along with Appling, a McD A-A) who took two-and-a-half years to develop. A stretch 4 with NBA first round potential, Payne will extend Ridbeh to the perimeter and bring them outside their comfort zone. On defense, Payne isn't a totalitarian defensive enforcer, but his size and athleticism is sufficient cause for concern.
Travis Trice: The 6' 0" backup one sat out Sparty's last game with an injury precaution. He should return against Texas. Trice plays the Abbott to Appling's Costello, and serves as a capable alternative should Appling play poorly. Texas is no stranger to undersized guards, and Trice suffers a similar fate. He has a capable 3 point shot (39.4% this year) but struggles to make an impact inside and finish around the rim.
Russell Byrd, Alvin Ellis: Bench filler at guard. Byrd got his first significant minutes of the season due to the Trice injury. Ellis is an unheralded freshman.
Matt Costello: The erstwhile starting 4 has mono and didn't travel to Austin.
Alex Gauna: The 6' 9" forward has started a few games this year, but is strictly a hustle guy to buy minutes. He has never posted a double-digit scoring game in his career.
Gavin Schilling: A 6' 9" forward from Findlay Prep, Schilling was Michigan St.'s star freshman recruit in a lackluster two-man 2013 class. He was a late bloomer in college who also took official visits to Minnesota and UCLA before choosing the Spartans a month before the regular signing period. His 7 points in the Spartans' last game against North Florida is his career high.
Here are the keys to beating Michigan St.:
1) Attack Payne and make him work on offense. Payne is Michigan St.'s only credible interior threat, and the Longhorns would do well to try and neuter him as much as possible. Texas should send bodies into the paint to try and draw fouls, and work a 1-2 punch of Ridley and Ibeh to keep Payne off-balance. If Payne starts floating to the perimeter, buying minutes with Connor Lammert as a stretch 5 may not be such a bad idea.
2) Shadow Gary Harris with afoletes. Harris often has a physical advantage against smaller 2's, and he would swallow Javan Felix alive. However, Texas can run Kendal Yancy and Demarcus Holland stride-by-stride with Harris. Given that Harris isn't 100% with his ankle injury, there should be no reason for the Longhorns to let Michigan St.'s best player beat them.
3) Attack the glass. Sparty is a poor offensive rebounding team, but are capable on defense. However, Texas has the size advantage inside, both in the starting lineup and on the bench. If Texas starts shooting up clunkers (a strong possibility), getting second chance opportunities and keeping the Spartan bigs off the glass will be a worthwhile way to stay close.
4) Leverage depth. Realistically, the Spartans have a 7-man rotation. One guy is out (Costello), and two more are injured (Harris and Trice). Texas has 9 bodies that can stay fresh and give fouls. Michigan St. has the talent and experience advantages, but depth is not its friend. The Longhorns have embraced running this year, and anything that can wear down the Spartans and keep them from settling in on the road is a good thing.
5) Come early. Be loud. Stay late. Wear orange. Well, at least one of the four will be satisfied by a demure alumni base and a winter vacationing student body.
The game is at 3:00 p.m. on CBS. Consider this your open thread for today's game. Hook ‘em.