You can read previous editions of the Texas Basketball Report in the archives.
After picking up consecutive must-have wins at home over Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, the Texas Longhorns (12-4, 2-1) basketball team hits the road to take on the Missouri Tigers (15-1, 2-1) on Saturday, the first game of what will be the most difficult six-game stretch that any team in college basketball will face this year, squaring off with five Top 20 teams, with a "breather" against a Top 50 Iowa State squad.
|1/18||at Kansas St|
|1/24||vs Iowa St|
Absolutely brutal, and unless someone in the Big Ten has a six-game stretch against Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, the six-game stretch Texas is embarking on is literally the most challenging anyone in the country will play this year.
Fortunately, we're a veteran team that's been tested like this before...
Oh. Right. That would be Missouri, not us.
Where Texas relies heavily on six freshmen, the Tigers may have one of the most experienced teams in the nation, starting three seniors, a junior, and a sophomore, while their top three off the bench are all -- you guessed it -- seniors. Indeed, Missouri rates the 6th most experienced team in Division 1 (average of 2.44 years of experience), while Texas pretty much brings up the rear at 326th (average of 0.97 years of experience). At least our coach used to be the boss of their coach, for what that's worth.
Probably not much, given how well Missouri has taken to former Barnes assistant Frank Haith in his first year in Columbia. The Tigers roared out of the gate this season with 14 straight wins, stomping opponents by an average score of 86-61. Missouri finally lost last week when they traveled to Kansas State, but they rebounded on Wednesday for an impressive 76-69 come-from-behind win over Iowa State in Ames. This is far and away the best Missouri team that Texas has faced, with the possible exception of the 2008-09 Tigers.
Under Haith the Tigers remain a team that likes to play pressure defense in an up tempo game, where they excel at forcing turnovers while avoiding turnovers themselves, with the third-lowest turnover percentage nationally. Texas matches up with Missouri better than most, but it's one I feel much, much better about at the back end of this six-game stretch, when this young team will get the Tigers in Austin and will be that much better off in terms of experience, if not the standings.
On the one hand, with two elite ballhandlers in J'Covan Brown and Myck Kabongo the Longhorns are better equipped to handle Missouri's pressure than just about anyone, but while that's one of the reasons for liking our chances to pull off an upset when the teams meet in the Erwin Center, I'm much less optimistic about a low-turnover performance this Saturday in Columbia. Texas' freshmen have struggled in each of their last trips out of Austin, losses at North Carolina and Iowa State, and it's incredibly difficult to imagine the Longhorns winning at Missouri on Saturday with Brown playing on a tender ankle and Kabongo being where he is on the development curve.
The one challenge Missouri does not present Texas is a size issue. The Tigers only start one true forward, opening games with three guards and 6'6" Kim English, a senior who's shot more three-pointers this season (83) than every Texas player save J'Covan Brown (92), and made more of them (44, bettering Brown's 33), good for an astounding -- and hopefully unsustainable -- 53%. Texas will also have its hand full trying to keep 6'3" Marcus Denmon from lighting up the scoreboard from beyond the arc, as the senior leads the team with 106 three-point shots taken this season, connecting at an outstanding 43% clip.
The Longhorns don't have to worry as much about 6'2" senior Matt Pressey, an average outside shooter, but shouldn't be fooled by 6'1" junior Michael Dixon's 29% shooting from three this year -- Dixon can stroke it, and is as likely to see his shooting percentage go up by the end of the year as English is to see his regress to the mean. Rounding out Mizzou's starting guards is 5'10" sophomore Phil Pressey, who struggled quite a bit running the point as a freshman last year, but has substantially improved as an offensive caretaker and facilitator. Pressey is a terrible shooter and too dimunitive to be much of a scorer in other ways, but along with being a superior open court point guard, this year he's increasingly putting his excellent quickness to productive use, using penetration to break down defenses and create open looks for his teammates or trips to the line for himself.
The Tigers lone substantial contributors in the frontcourt are Ricardo Ratliffe (6'8", 240 lbs) and Steve Moore (6'9", 267 lbs). Ratliffe typically starts and plays a solid 20-25 minutes per game, and he delivers a lot of value when he's out there by doing everything pretty well -- scoring in the paint, getting to the line, clearing the glass, and protecting the rim on defense. Moore plays closer to 15 minutes per game, and he's pretty damn skilled for a guy his size, with great hands and excellent basketball IQ. Finally, we may see a little bit from Kadeem Green, an athletic 6'8" freshman with long arms and interesting potential, but unlike Barnes, Frank Haith has the luxury of bringing his newcomer along slowly as he adjusts to the college level.
So are we doomed on Saturday? Probably, but here are a few of the things I'll be looking for if there's to be an upset:
1. Sight-in our outside shooting. This Texas team is filled with good shooters -- from an ability standpoint this is one of the best Barnes has ever had at Texas -- but we've been shooting the ball terribly for about a month now, as pretty much to a man the Longhorns have gone ice cold from beyond the arc. Julien Lewis finally found his range on Wednesday against A&M (3-3 from downtown) but J'Covan Brown and Sheldon McClellan remain off target, and after a good start Texas has seen its three-point shooting plunge all the way down to 32.6%. Our players are better outside shooters than that, and if there's to be any upset on Saturday, it'll likely be because we found our range from outside. On the encouraging side, not only do the Tigers' guards not present the same length challenges that we've seen from many recent teams (UNC, Temple, Iowa State, A&M), but pressure defense opens up the floor and can provide a lot of clean, in-rhythm looks from three. With our inexperience and Brown's injured ankle, I don't think we want to get into an up-and-down game with Missouri, but successfully breaking their pressure will open up the floor and should present us with some looks that I could see really helping our slumping shooters sight-in and find their range.
2. Strong games from Kabongo, Holmes, and McClellan. I might start Holmes over Bond on Saturday, if only because of his greater potential to contribute points to a game where we're likely to have to score a lot just to keep up, let alone win. Holmes is an equally good open court player as Bond, he's a substantially more developed offensive player in the halfcourt, and unlike many recent teams we've played Missouri is more finesse than power -- pretty much the opposite of Texas A&M: small, skilled, and balanced. Beyond that, despite his excellent game Wednesday I think counting on Julien Lewis to be a leading offensive weapon is fool's gold, and though I'll be thrilled to have him prove me wrong, taking the next step for this Texas team is all about the light coming on for Myck Kabongo and Sheldon McClellan. We've seen promising flashes from both players -- and in fact both have been very good players, particularly for freshmen -- but when they take the next step, this team does. I suspect that's much more likely to happen when we play Missouri in Austin in three weeks, but if both deliver strong games tomorrow we can definitely be competitive for a win.
3. Chappy breaks his trend. Long-time BONizens will remember wondering at the outset of each game which version of Connor Atchley would show up that night, and perhaps taking a cue from the former player and current assistant coach, Clint Chapman has settled in to his own on-a-game, off-a-game trend, with Bad Chap and Good Chap alternately making appearances against Rice (awful), Iowa State (great), Oklahoma State (bad), and Texas A&M (great). I'm tempted to think Good Chap could give Missouri trouble, much as he did with his 19 points and 14 boards at Iowa State, and as Jordan Henriquez did in sparking K-State's 75-59 win over the Tigers at Bramlage. I don't know that an appearance by Bad Chap will necessarily be a primary reason we lose on Saturday, but Good Chap could go a long ways towards helping us steal a win.
Prediction: Like I said, while I think we match up with Missouri better than most, it's a tall order for such a young team to go to Columbia and beat this skilled and seasoned Tigers squad in their own gym. We'll see how things look heading in to the game in Austin in three weeks, but I think it's far more likely that on Saturday we'll struggle with too many turnovers and frigid outside shooting. Both are particularly crippling against a team like Missouri, as they not only prevent you from scoring, but from getting to play set defense. That's where the Tigers absolutely murder teams -- and where Iowa State murdered us in the first half in Ames -- and we simply have to keep scoring the basketball as much to help us defensively as to put points on the scoreboard. Additionally factoring in Mizzou's strong home court advantage and an injured J'Covan Brown playing at 80% capacity (if we're lucky), and it's a stretch to imagine a Texas victory on Saturday. A slow start will absolutely kill us and will likely result in a runaway blowout, but I'll be optimistic and forecast a good-enough start to keep us competitive. But the more experienced Tigers win it, 78-68.