Losing to Kansas State at home completely disrupted the narrative about how the Longhorns were going to remain in contention for a Big 12 regular-season title. With difficult road games looming against Texas A&M and Kansas and home games against Oklahoma and Baylor, the Longhorns have little margin for error if they hope to catch Kansas and Oklahoma, making the game tonight against Missouri essentially a must-win game.
Beyond the big-picture ramifications, this game comes down to pride. Pride in defeating a Missouri team over whom the Longhorns owned nine consecutive victories prior to tripping up in Columbia last season. Pride in defending the home court, where the Longhorns haven't lost two home games in a row in so long that I couldn't even find the date, though the official website doesn't have all-time results, a serious omission. I would go all Under Armour on you now, but decide that it's just too chessy. The point stands, though. The Erwin Center is not a place to lose basketball games. Period.
Keys to the Game
Slow down Leo Lyons: The senior forward has been one of the most productive players for the Tiger this season, especially in the early going, when he scored 21 or more points three times in a two-week stretch. There isn't an overwhelming correlation over the season between slowing down Lyons and beating Missouri, but there has been in Big 12 play. Nebraska and Kansas State both beat Missouri by limiting Lyon's efficiency from the floor, as he shot a combined 5 of 16 in those games (31%). The scary news is that he hit his first eight shots after re-entering the starting lineup on Saturday against Baylor, ending the game with a career-high 30 points. The heartening news is that Lyons has a propensity for foul problems, averaging about two and a half fouls per game and picking up four fouls five times this season. Gary Johnson and Damian James should attack Lyons at every opportunity.
- Defend the three-point line. Missouri comes into the game knocking down 40% of their three-point shots. Texas had problems closing out on Denis Clemente when Frank Martin took him off the ball and had him run off screens. Of particular concern is 6-7 Matt Lawrence, the type of player who can't be allowed to get into a rhythm, as he shoots 42% and can get hot in a hurry -- witness his 5-7 performance against Kansas State, 5-8 against Oklahoma State, and an incredibly efficient 6-7 versus Coppin State. The problem is that the Longhorns don't have a guard who can challenge Lawrence's shot. Regardless of whether it's a guard like Varez Ward or a forward like Damion James, running Lawrence off the line is idea, even if it entails an out-of-control closeout that results in dribble penetration. Run. him. off. the. line.
To pressure or not to pressure? In two of the last three games, the best basketball that the Longhorns played came when they were pressing the opposing team and forcing them into quick shots and turnovers. With only one three-point threat on the team, it's no coincidence that the Longhorns had to significantly increase the pace to overcome Kansas State's 17-point lead. To be honest, I didn't think this team as constructed could come back from big deficits because of their profound offensive deficiencies, but the full-court pressure provided early offense and a return to aggressiveness by Justin Mason. Conventional wisdom has it that pressing teams don't like facing pressure in return and the Longhorns have the personnel to press effectively. Since Missouri plays five guards, wearing out the Tigers isn't particularly likely, but the Longhorns could use a way to create easy baskets early in the game, as they failed to score a field goal against Kansas State
- Consistency. Rick Barnes has been preaching this to his charges all season. One day Damion James goes on a personal 11-0 run and the next night he comes out flat and unaggressive. One day AJ Abrams is hitting and playing selfless basketball, the next he's jacking up anything he can get his hands on and exhibiting the poor shot selection Longhorn fans hate. One day Dexter Pittman plays big minutes and produces at a high level of efficiency, and the next day he plays less than a minute. On and on it goes. Justin Mason is a big part of that because he's the most consistently effective dribble penetrator on the team and the only player capable of both finishing at the rim and making plays for his teammates. His 12 points and nine assists against Kansas State were hugely instrumental in leading the comeback. The poster boy for inconsistency on a team chock full of it, Mason needs to perform at a high level every time he steps on the floor.
If you get tired, don't tell your opponent. For some unfathomable reason, Justin Mason told Denis Clemente that he was tired during the first half of the Kansas State.game Can't say I can recall an athlete admitting being worn down to an opponent before and it's a horrible idea. Especially when said opponent is absolutely in a zone. Why make them more confident by essentially telling them that you won't put up much resistance to whatever they want to do? Shame on you, Justin Mason.