The brutality continues, as Texas basketball faces its third-straight ranked opponent on Saturday as the blistering Kansas Jayhawks visit the Erwin Center riding an 8-game winning streak, including a 92-74 thrashing of Baylor in Lawrence on Monday. As usual, Kansas head coach Bill Self has his team atop the standings, as the Jayhawks aim for their eighth consecutive season without at least a share of the Big 12 title.
On the bright side, the only team that has truly challenged Kansas over that stretch is Rick Barnes' Longhorns. Kansas and Texas have split their last 8 regular season match ups, with each team winning three in a row at home before trading road victories the past two years. The Longhorns will be hoping that trend doesn't continue as they desperately search for that breakthrough win that elevates them off the bubble of the NCAA Tournament projected field.
Also in the good news department, Rick Barnes is 13-5 in games played against Top 10 teams at the Erwin Center, and the Longhorns have held serve at home against Top 10 teams in 9 of their last 11 tries, including a 72-69 win over #3 Kansas in 2008.
Unfortunately, the rest is pretty much bad news. We're exceptionally young and dependent on freshmen, while the Jayhawks rely primarily on upperclassmen. And two of those upperclassmen are monstrous big men who have been murdering even big frontcourts, to say nothing of small, foul-prone groups like our own. Senior Thomas Robinson (6-9, 237 lbs) is at this point in the season probably the favorite to win the national player of the year award, and junior Jeff Withey (7-0, 235 lbs) is blossoming playing alongside the superstar power forward. If you thought it was painful to watch Chapman, Holmes, Bond, and Wangmene get brutalized by Kansas State's frontcourt, things could be even uglier on Saturday afternoon.
On the perimeter the name you know is senior Tyshawn Taylor (6-3, 185), a streaky, hyper-athletic, and turnover-prone slasher who is capable of providing a lot of value even when he doesn't look particularly good doing it. His shooting percentage from three is way up this year (45%) as he's become more selective and focused more of his energy on what he does best -- driving to the basket. He's not a high-percentage finisher in the paint, but he racks up fouls extremely well, and in breaking down the defense does a fantastic job of creating opportunities for his powerful frontcourt teammates to cash in, whether from a Taylor pass (his 31% assist rate is superb) or missed shot (Robinson, Withey, and 6-8 junior Kevin Young all clean up offensive rebounds exceptionally well).
Taylor's starting backcourt mates are juniors Travis Releford (6-5, 207 lbs) and Elijah Johnson (6-4, 195 lbs), and along with Taylor they help to make Kansas once again one of the toughest, most pressure-oriented defensive teams in the country; in that regard, Wednesday's battle with K-State was an excellent tune up. Offensively, Releford's the more dangerous player, with a steady three-point jumper and better-than-you'd-think ability to put it on the deck and drive -- think Will Spradling, but longer. Johnson's much more content to fire from long-distance, where he's streaky, but he can drive and dish it, and he does a good job setting up teammates off the bounce. Off the bench Texas' defenders will need to locate Conner Teahan (6-5, 212 lbs), a three-point specialist who can really stroke it.
Keys to the Game
It's already Friday afternoon, so let's wrap this abbreviated preview with a few keys to the game.
1. Defend Thomas Robinson one-on-one. There, I said it. Some may disagree, and events may dictate we do otherwise, but much as I called for us to defend Blake Griffin one-on-one three years ago when OU came to Austin (which worked), I don't think we'd do well trying to double-team Thomas Robinson. We're not going to stop him from getting his no matter what we do, and I'd like to see us play him straight up -- defend him one-on-one, play your best defense without fouling, and take whatever lumps you have to. What we can't have is (1) lots and lots of fouls trying to shut him down, or (2) lots and lots of offensive rebounds as a result of trying to double-team him. I'd see how well Wangmene and Holmes can do keeping Robinson from completely eating them up one-on-one without fouling, and tell Clint Chapman to stay home and keep his body on the seven-footer Withey. Chapman killed us at K-State trying to block shots taken by someone we had a defender on, opening up countless offensive rebounds for the Wildcats. We can live with 20 points from Robinson, but we can't have Withey mopping us up on the offensive glass, as well. If Robinson's destroying us, we can adjust, but I can just about guarantee you that Kansas will romp if we're fouling or ineffectively double-teaming.
2. Make Kansas beat you with jump shots. We haven't had much luck with that on the road, where everyone's shot lights out against us from downtown, but this time we're the home team and all of the biggest dangers in this game involve KU players in the paint. We've got to stay in front of Taylor, not let him beat us with penetration, pack in the paint, and take some chances with getting burned on three point shots. I'm not crazy about us trying to zone Kansas simply because of the rebounding concern, but as a defensive tactic that's not too far off from what we need to do with our man defense. Make Kansas shoot the ball well from the outside on the road to beat you. If they do, well, you tip your cap, but let's at least try to avoid letting them feast on their bread and butter.
3. Attack, attack, attack, and get to the line. Finally, we've got to be assertive on our home court and take it to Kansas on offense. Like Kansas State, the Jayhawks defend aggressively, and very well, but they're plenty prone to foul, if not to the extreme degree as the Wildcats. Kabongo, Brown, and McClellan all need to be assertive in taking it to the rim, which not only gives us our best shot of racking up opportunities to score from the line, but could potentially send Robinson or Withey to the bench with foul trouble, which would change the dynamic of this game entirely.
Prediction: If the Kabongo and McClellan we saw in Manhattan show up on Saturday, we can compete in this game, particularly if we're the benefactors of home court officiating this time around, and especially if we're the team that's hot from beyond the arc. Our frontcourt disadvantage in this game is so extreme that we could be in a devastating hole less than halfway through the first half, but if we commit to denying penetration, playing Kansas straight up, and not fouling, we should at least give ourselves a chance to compete throughout the game, unless the Jayhawks are torid from the outside. There are a lot more reasons to like Kansas in this game than Texas, but it's been brought to my attention that our outcomes are continually matching my pre-game predictions, so I've talked myself into envisioning a breakthrough game for this young team. Kabongo outplays Taylor, Kansas struggles with foul trouble, McClellan finally finds his stroke, and J`Covan Brown helps us slay another giant with 14 made free throws. I'm calling for the upset: Texas 78 Kansas 75