Texas takes the floor in Manhattan tonight with a chance to pick up what would be its fourth "defining" win of the season. Along with the 20-point win over Tennessee, the true road win over UCLA, and the home win over Kansas, this evening's road trip to Kansas State marks an opportunity to send another powerful message to the NCAA Selection Committee. A win this evening would also, in all likelihood, lock up the regular season Big 12 championship for the Longhorns.
There's just one problem: Kansas State has played exceptionally well at home this season. In conference play alone, they're 6-0, with an average margin of victory of over 21 points - Texas A&M (+21 points), Iowa State (+25), Kansas (+9), Nebraska (+15), Oklahoma State (+21), and Missouri (+37). To make matters worse, the Wildcats will be trying to rebound from back-to-back road losses last week that dropped them to 8-4 in conference. With a Top 10 team coming to town, the team will be hungry and the crowd rabid. For Texas, this will be as tough as it gets the rest of the regular season.
Let's turn to the team profiles themselves, then. As always, we strongly prefer Ken Pomeroy's advanced metrics over traditional rate and counting metrics.
Before we dive in, this side-by-side is a great example of why KP's numbers are preferable to those of traditional stats. Though Kansas State averages nearly four points per game more than Texas on the season, their games have been played at a higher pace (i.e. more possessions). Pomeroy's numbers, better than anyone else's out there, give us insights into how efficiently teams do what they do. Controlling for pace allows for that.
We can see that both teams have been terrific offensively this season. In particular, look at how Texas has been getting it done this season. The 'Horns are turning the ball over on fewer than 14 percent of their possessions this season, tops in the country. Not only that, but Texas picks up an offensive rebound on 37.5 percent of its shot attempts. It's the basketball ideal, in many ways: don't waste possession with turnovers, while picking up extra possessions on rebounds. A team can thrive while being an average shooting team (51.3 eFG%) when it's that efficient protecting the ball.
Kansas State has been impressive offensively, as well, thanks in large part to picking up offensive boards on 43 percent of its shots. The Wildcats have also done better than Texas at getting to the free throw line, though they're not a great shooting team from the stripe itself. Looking at Kansas State's field goal shooting percentages, it's clear what Texas needs to do tonight: clear the defensive glass, keep Michael Beasley out of the paint (easier said than done), and make Beasley's teammates beat us from outside.
Though Texas is fast catching up, Kansas State has been the superior defensive team overall this season. They've done a solid job forcing turnovers and they defend the paint well. One cause for concern has been their perimeter defense, with overall numbers that look like Texas' did in early January. The Wildcats are allowing opponents to connect on 36 percent of their three point tries, though teams don't shoot the long ball nearly as often against them as they Texas.
Looking back at KSU's 84-75 win over Kansas back in January, the preferred strategy didn't work, as KSU hit 12 of their 26 three point attempts. Of course, defending Michael Beasley is a challenge of a special kind, and Rick Barnes will have some tough decisions to make this evening. Does he stick a smaller player like Justin Mason on Beasley, with help coming from the bigs? Or does he stick the bigger Damion James on him, with help coming from every which direction? Whatever the choice, getting the ball out of Beasley's hands is important. If his teammates shoot lights out tonight, so be it. Kansas State is a young team, with young stars - whatever the plan, it ought to focus on keeping the Wildcats from operating comfortably by getting the ball easily to Beasley - inside or out. Trapping Beasley early and often seems wise, though that leaves us vulnerable on the defensive glass.
Texas' improvement on defense of late has been tremendous, but we'll need to be at our absolute best tonight to win on the road. Kansas State has players who can shoot over our guards and they have big bodies that can work us hard in the paint. How the Longhorns perform as a defensive unit - rotating, working together, and so on - will determine our chances of picking up the win.
Five hours from tip. I'm excited.