Texas Longhorns (17-9, 7-6) at Oklahoma State Cowboys (12-14, 5-8)
Saturday, February 12th, 3:00 p.m. CT
Gallagher-Iba Arena | Stillwater, Oklahoma | TV: Big 12 Network
Opponent Blog: Cowboys Ride For Free
Texas basketball hits the road to Oklahoma again this week, traveling Saturday to Stillwater for a rematch with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, as the Longhorns look to pick up their fifth straight win. In the first meeting all the way back on January 7th, Texas picked up its first conference win of the season in an ugly offensive performance by both teams, with a 58-49 final score that wouldn't look out of place on a Big 12 football scoreboard.
Since then Oklahoma State has gone 4-7, but five of those losses came away from Gallagher-Iba, where the Cowboys have been a much more competitive team. The Pokes are 4-2 playing at home this season, with narrow losses to Baylor and K-State, and wins over Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Missouri, and Iowa State. No doubt Rick Barnes and his staff have been reminding their players all week that two teams above them in the standings went in to Stillwater and lost.
As you may recall from the first match up, the Cowboys are one of the thinnest teams in the nation, with a roster whittled down by exits and injuries to just seven scholarship players. Oklahoma State has taken to starting three freshmen and a sophomore alongside senior guard Keiton Page (5-6, 165), and with very little in the way of bench help behind them, all five tend to play as many minutes as their personal foul count allows.
While Keiton Page has often helped Oklahoma State pick up wins with his sharpshooting contributions, Texas has been the dimunitive guard's nightmare opponent. Since the 2009-10 season, the Longhorns have won five straight over the Cowboys, thanks in part to the phenomenal job they've done smothering the Pokes' top outside shooting threat.
Not that defending the Perryman-esque Page is a particularly daunting challenge, but like Brandy Perryman Oklahoma State's sharpshooting guard can fill it up from beyond the arc if you lose track of him and he gets room to shoot. Although Texas has managed to lose other shooters over the last few years, they've always stuck to Page like glue, and he's performed dreadfully against the Longhorns, basically contributing negative value to his team, considering his subpar rebounding and defensive abilities.
Although a hot night of outside shooting from Keiton Page would certainly help Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Cowboys' fate mostly hinges on the play they get from freshman Le'Bryan Nash (6-7, 200) and sophomore Markel Brown (6-3, 190). Nash was the superstar blue chip recruit who more than a few prognosticators placed on their pre-season First Team All Big 12 ballots, but the season has largely been a struggle for the freshman. Playing amidst a weak supporting cast, Nash has been forced to shoulder a leading role he wasn't ready for, as reflected by his extremely inefficient offensive numbers on the season. He's shooting an abysmal 25% from three (15-61), and not much better from inside the arc, scoring just 105 of his team-high 239 two-point attempts (44%). Nash is doing an increasingly better job of getting to the line, which is what the match up nightmare really needed to be doing from the get-go. But such things take time. as Texas fans know watching our own freshman adjust to the college level.
Marrkel Brown has been better than Nash, and has impressed me as a player since the first time I saw him as a freshman last season. He's been getting steadily better over the past two seasons, and the Cowboys are at their best when Brown -- not Nash (or especially Page) -- is the focal point of the offense. Brown is only a so-so outside shooter, but he's got elite driving ability, can finish at the rim, and knows how to use his body to get to the foul line, where he shoots 75%.
Rounding out OSU's starting five are freshmen Brian Williams (6-5, 205) and Michael Cobbins (6-8, 220), who have increasingly provided quality minutes as their debut seasons have progressed. Williams is a long and athletic wing who can give smaller guards match up fits, scoring it well around the cup and drawing fouls. He's skilled with the ball in his hands and is an excellent open court player, and Texas will be looking for Sheldon McClellan to continue his trend of head-in-the-game defensive performances. Michael Cobbins starts as the Pokes' lone true forward, and under the circumstances he's done a great job giving Travis Ford some desperately needed presence in the paint, where he excels as both a rebounder and post defender. What he doesn't provide is much in the way of scoring; though relatively skilled, Cobbins' offensive game is still raw and he's pretty much exclusively going to score off a rebound or nice assist.
Keys to the Game
Oklahoma State is never easy to defeat at Gallagher-Iba, and if Texas is flat and fundamentally unsound, the improving Cowboys are plenty capable of winning a tight, low-scoring affair, and a repeat of the kind of the kind of game the two teams played in January would boost their chances of an upset. If, on the other hand, the Texas team we've seen the past five games shows up in Stillwater, the match up is clearly in our favor, even on the road.
1. Take it to them. Oklahoma State is thin and young, and the Pokes are doomed by even a modest amount of foul trouble. Moreover, Texas is at its best when it attacks the defense with penetration and avoids settling for jump shots. Travis Ford has mostly stuck to man defense, but even if the Cowboys go to a zone, if Texas attacks the zone as they did against OU on Tuesday, that'll be a great sign we're in good shape.
2. Make them earn their points. Without a functional point guard, if you can keep Page from draining a bunch of threes, Oklahoma State's ability to score comes down to Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash creating their own offense. Brown does so pretty well, but both he and Nash are most capable of having a big offensive night when they're able to get to the line for gobs of free throws. If Texas succeds in being sound in its transition defense, keeping track of Page, and defending without fouling, it's hard to imagine the Cowboys scoring enough to keep up.
3. Solid fundamentals. Finally, let's conclude by highlighting the impressive improvement we've seen from Texas in those fundamental aspects of the game that have keyed their recent run: sound team/help defense, excellent rebounding, limited turnovers, and strong, physical play. That's how you win in the Big 12, and especially how you win road games in the Big 12. If the recent trend holds another game, Texas can make it five straight.
Prediction: It's that improvement in the key fundamentals that have me excited about this team's ability to continue to close strongly down the stretch, and everything we've seen since College Station suggests there's no reason to believe it won't stick. I'm worried about another miserable first half performance, and don't love our chances to rally in Gallagher-Iba, but all the recent signs with this team are positive and trending the right way, and I'm unable to forecast a loss. I like us to play well, and keep building the momentum. Texas 73 Oklahoma State 64