Last summer, when Brad Stevens left Butler to become the head coach of the Boston Celtics, Matthew Graves was shocked. When Graves left Stevens' staff in late March to succeed the retired Ronnie Arrow at South Alabama, he couldn't have known that the head coaching position at Butler would soon come open. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine that he would have left, as he was the likely inheritor of the Butler program.
But while Graves won't be coaching in the Big East, as a consolation prize he takes over a decent South Alabama squad. The prior iteration of the Jaguars finished with the second best record in the Sun Belt conference (14-6, 17-13 overall), before losing in the conference tournament to eventual winner Western Kentucky. (Middle Tennessee, the regular season conference champion, received an NCAA tournament at-large invite.)
Tonight, Graves and company come to Austin to play the Texas Longhorns. It is the second of three consecutive games against solid, though unheralded, mid-major opponents for Rick Barnes' squad.
The star of South Alabama is 6-7 senior Augustine Rubit, a Houston native and the reigning Sun Belt player of the year. Rubit led the conference last season in rebounding and finished second in scoring; over the whole season he averaged 19.4 points per game and 10.5 rebounds per game. He is a handful, both on the offensive glass (he ranked 25th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage last year, per kenpom.com) and working with the ball.
Rubit is a skilled scorer around the basket, last season attempting just under half of his shots at the rim. An unusually high percentage of these shots were unassisted, per numbers taken from hoop-math.com. Last season 36 percent of his points at the rim came off of assists (a low percentage for a big man) and 29 percent of his points near the goal were putbacks of offensive rebounds. The remaining 35 of his points at the rim came in situations where he was able to beat his man and get to the hoop. (The equivalent percentage for Texas big men Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert is around 5 percent.) Rubit is a dangerous scorer who is made all the more dangerous by the fact that he is a career 74 percent free throw shooter. He gets to the line often.
The Longhorns will also have to keep track of the versatile Mychal Ammons. The 6-6 junior likes to attack the basket, will crash the offensive glass, and can also step outside and hit the three (he was 28-71 from beyond the arc, good for 39 percent). Ammons was one of the stars in the Jaguars' thrashing of Detroit Mercy last Friday, scoring 13 highly efficient points and grabbing 14 boards.
Senior Antoine Allen took over half of his shot attempts from beyond the three point line last year, and struggled shooting the ball, connecting on only 28 percent of his chances from long range. But last season's struggles were just a bad memory on Friday, when Allen lit up Detroit, going 4-5 from three point range. If Texas plays as much zone as it did in its first game against Mercer, and it loses Allen in the zone as frequently as it lost Mercer guards (Mercer took 30 threes), then Allen will be taking shots and the outcome of the game will in large part be determined by his ability to hit them.
Filling out the backcourt for South Alabama is 6-2 freshmen Ken Williams (who played high school ball in Bellaire, Texas) and 5-10 sophomore Barrington Stevens. Stevens was turnover prone last season, and freshman guards like Williams often have trouble taking care of the rock. Another freshman, Aakim Saintill, will also see some time as the primary ball handler for Graves' squad. While the game against Detroit wasn't a turnover disaster, if Texas applies pressure as they often did against Mercer, we might see Williams and Stevens struggle.
It promises to be an interesting game against another quality mid-major opponent. While the Jaguars appear less dangerous as a whole than Mercer, the actual difference between Mercer and South Alabama may be smaller than I think. If Allen is hitting shots, and the Texas front line struggles to defend Rubit and Ammons, South Alabama could give the Longhorns trouble.
The South Alabama front line is as good as Texas' front line, if not better; Rubit may be the best player on the floor. I will be watching to see just how well the Longhorns box out the Jaguar forwards, as both men are dangerous on the offensive glass. This could be an even bigger concern if Rick Barnes again chooses to play much of the game in zone. Additionally, it isn't hard to imagine Rubit putting a few quick fouls on one of the Texas big men.
While Texas will have its challenges in the front court, the Longhorn back court is simply better. Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland can apply pressure on Graves' young guards, and force a few extra turnovers. If the Texas post players can play Rubit and Ammons to close to a draw inside, Rick Barnes' guards should win the game for Texas.