The #16 Longhorns (4-0) dispatched at least one Aggie team on T+1 by defeating New Mexico State 102-87 in the semifinals of the Legends Classic Newark, NJ. The Horns now take another significant step up in competition as they face the #7 Tennessee Volunteers (5-0) in the finals at 6 PM on Versus (Time Warner Austin Ch. 470). If it appears that we play the Vols every year, we do. Texas and Tennessee just completed a home-and-home series last year, with the Horns dropping both games, and this year’s team is Bruce Pearl’s best yet.
The Volunteers are the pre-season picks of many to take the SEC crown. They are a legitimate 10 or 11 players deep, prefer to play an up-tempo pace, and thrive on creating and converting off turnovers. Tennessee is led by reigning SEC player of the year, Chris Lofton. Lofton (13 ppg) is a terrific pure shooter with NBA range on his jumper. While his ball handling skills are said to be improved, he is still much more a shooting guard than a point guard. Joining Lofton in the backcourt will be 6-2 JaJuan Smith (16.8 ppg) and 6-4 Jordan Howell. Also likely to receive significant playing time will be 6-2 Ramar Smith (10.6 ppg) and 6-7 Tyler Smith, a transfer from Iowa, who plays more of a point-forward position.
Tennessee is not blessed with true back to the basket post players but they have plenty of forwards who use their athleticism to get to the rim and can score in transition. Sophomores Wayne Chism (6-9, 242) and Duke Crews (6-7, 233) should provide the bulk of the challenge for the Texas post players.
The Vols have 11 players averaging over ten minutes per game and have five players (J. Smith, Lofton, T. Smith, Chism, and R. Smith) averaging double digits in scoring. Playing on back to back nights will be tough for the very thin Horns. Playing on back to back nights against a very good Tennessee team that substitutes in loads could prove too much to handle. All five Texas starters played more than 30 minutes against New Mexico State.
The advanced metrics stats for the Volunteers reveal a very good team on both ends of the floor. On offense, the Vols are a highly efficient scoring machine, 116.6 points per 100 possessions. They shoot a high field goal percentage, especially from inside the arc, get to the free throw line well, and protect the basketball. There a couple of areas of concern, though. Surprisingly the Vols shoot only 35% from behind the arc. Upon first glance, I thought that maybe the wrong players are shooting the long ball. But looking at Lofton’s numbers, 11-for-35, shows that he is the one not off to a hot shooting start this season. This is good news for the Horns but don’t sleep on Lofton, as he could easily go off JJ Redick-style on the Longhorns this evening. Also, the Vols are not a good offensive rebounding club and are just terrible (59.6%) from the free thrown line.
On defense, the Vols are decent in most categories but top five in the country in steals and turnovers. The stats are clear: if the Vols don’t create turnovers, they are very beatable.
For the Longhorns, Pomeroy’s stats show an extremely efficient offensive club (127.4 points / 100 possessions) that is torching opponents from behind the arc and limiting turnovers but also one that struggles on the glass on both ends. Through the first part of the season, the identity of this team is already well established. DJ Augustin and AJ Abrams are offensive machines. Augustin has done a fantastic job breaking down defenses off the dribble and protecting the basketball, while AJ has simply been lights out with his jumper. Conversely, the post players' production on both ends has been merely average. For this Longhorn team to become excellent, they must do a better job of rebounding on both ends, especially on defense, and secondly, need to find at least one post player who can be a threat to score in the half-court.
- Control the Defensive Glass: The Longhorns currently rank 311th in defensive rebounding and gave up an astounding 17 offensive rebounds to New Mexico State. Tennessee doesn’t have much of a size advantage but their big men are more athletic than Clint Chapman and Connor Atchley. Alexis Wangmene will need to show that nose for the ball that I’ve already grown to love.
- Take Good Shots & Limit Runs: These two go hand in hand. After turnovers, the second easiest way to get fast break points is off bad shots. The Longhorns need to run their half-court sets and force Tennessee to guard them in the half-court. With just six or seven healthy and viable Longhorns available, I’m not sure helter-skelter basketball is to our advantage in this one.
This should be a fun game to watch. If Texas can protect the basketball like they have through the first four games and at least stay close on the glass, then I really like our chances. I’m not sold in Tennessee’s ability to beat solid opponents unless they are forcing 20+ turnovers.