This is the biggie. The Texas Longhorns head to Lawrence to take on the conference-leading Kansas Jayhawks. Texas sits two games back of Kansas. If the Longhorns want to have any shot of making a Big 12 regular season title run, a victory over Kansas tomorrow is imperative.
The Longhorns dominated Kansas in Austin, as satisfying a win as you'll see all year. Burnt Orange Nation's Jeff Haley put together a picturesque view of how that happened. The game notes from Tjarks' preview still hold true, but I've added additional color below.
This is a winnable game. But if the odds end up in Texas' favor, it will have been a very hard-fought, hard-earned win.
Naadir Tharpe: I haven't liked a Kansas point guard since Mario Chalmers. No reason to start again with Tharpe, a 5' 11" junior. Like predecessors Elijah Johnson, Tyshawn Taylor, and Sherron Collins, Tharpe is a scoring-first guard that Bill Self has tried to mold into a lead facilitator. Tharpe can go off every so often--he scored 23 against Baylor and dished 12 dimes versus Iowa State. He just doesn't scare me at the 1.
Wayne Selden: To me, the 6' 5" freshman 2-guard and fellow five-star freshman Aaron Harrison of Kentucky are the same player. Only one has been better this season while also asked to take on more ball-handling and scoring duties. Yet it's the other one who is getting first round buzz while Harrison is getting advice to return for his sophomore season. I don't get it. Selden scored 21 in Austin, the only positive in Kansas' loss. To call him streaky is an understatement. Since that game, here are Selden's point totals: 4, 17, 2, 15, 6.
Perry Ellis: I liken the 6' 8" sophomore forward to one of my favorite players ever, Kentucky's Chuck Hayes. Ellis will likely be a four-year terror at Kansas when all is said and done. Ellis is an efficient inside scorer and plus rebounder. He struggled against Jonathan Holmes in the opening round, and I expect Ellis will be fired up for tomorrow's tilt to get even.
Joel Embiid: In the first game, I posited that Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh had the ability to hold the 7' 0" monster freshman in check due to heft and experience advantages. I turned out to be right about that, though I did underestimate Isaiah Taylor's craftiness at getting into the paint despite Embiid's presence. Since that game, Embiid has been slowed by a back injury. He sat out a game against TCU, but returned to log 33 minutes against Texas Tech. I expect all systems go for Embiid against Texas.
Frank Mason: The 5 '11" freshman has seen a minutes reduction in conference play after starting a few games ahead of Tharpe. He has yet to score in double-digits against a Big 12 opponent. I like Mason better as a ball-handler, but he's not a scoring threat.
Connor Frankamp: The 6' 0" freshman combo guard surprisingly logged 15 minutes against Kansas State and 13 minutes versus TCU. Other than that, he's still a pup. He might get some minutes in an effort to slow down Taylor.
Brannen Greene: A high potential freshman, the 6' 7" wing doesn't get valuable minutes. Look for him next year.
Jamari Traylor: The 6' 8" sophomore big is on the Bill Self patented slow-moving big man development track of guaranteed success. In conference, only Texas with Connor Lammert and Baylor with Rico Gathers has the advantage of being able to bring in talented backup bigs without much dropoff from the starters. Traylor makes the most of his opportunities, but plays just a handful of minutes every game.
Tarik Black: The 6' 9" senior is a graduate transfer from Memphis. He saw an uptick in minutes due to Embiid's injury, but hasn't really provided the impact that Jayhawk fans were expecting.
Keys to Victory:
1. Go for Zay: For all his recent success, Isaiah Taylor hasn't had a blow. His last three games have come against very good, very experienced lead guards: DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), and Markel Brown (Oklahoma State). Surprisingly, Taylor gets a breather against the top team in the conference, as neither Tharpe nor Mason are scary defenders. Taylor scored 23 points in round 1 versus KU, and has reached double-digits in scoring in 7 straight games. Let's make it 8.
2. Keep Embiid uncomfortable: I expect Self to get creative in the post. He'll probably try to flip the script, feeding Embiid early to get the big man some confidence and try to probe Ridley for foul trouble. Texas' big sophomore has hit a bit of a wall. Ridley had nice games against Oklahoma State and West Virginia, but otherwise has looked sluggish since the Kansas win. Texas can't let Embiid win early and get into a groove.
3. Jumpers, not drives: In game one, Texas forced Kansas to settle for jump shots, and the Jayhawks were only too happy to oblige. I advocated a similar strategy against Iowa State, but the Cyclones were able to win the inside battle. Hopefully, Texas can conjure up what worked. Kansas is great at scoring inside, but the Jayhawks don't scare from 15 feet and beyond.
4. Don't stop believin': The strategy for Texas will likely be similar to Barnes' game plan for the first matchup. But this game isn't in Austin, and it's foolhardy to expect everyone on Kansas to play that poorly again. The Longhorns will have to absorb some body blows, but if Texas can hang around, this team can beat the Jayhawks in Lawrence. Texas has won but once in Allen Fieldhouse during the Barnes era. Another perfect storm would make it two.
The fun begins at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU. Hook 'em.