The Texas Longhorns basketball team (16-4, 5-2) will be looking to win their sixth straight Big 12 conference game when they take the court on Saturday afternoon at 3:00 pm (TV: ESPN) to battle the Kansas Jayhawks (16-4, 7-0) in Austin.
Texas' run has been impressive, but the Jayhawks are the Big 12's standard bearers for impressive streaks. Kansas will be looking to win its eighth straight game to open the 2014 Big 12 season, but that's nothing compared to their crown jewel: the Jayhawks are on a quest to win at least a share of the Big 12 title for the tenth consecutive season.
That is not a typo.
Prior to slumping the last two years, Texas has been the top challenger to the kings of the Big 12, splitting the 8 regular season games between the two teams between 2004-2011 and splitting the Big 12 title with the Jayhawks in both 2006 and '08. Since the advent of round robin play in 2012, however, Kansas has won all four contests against Texas and gone 30-6 across two more Big 12-championship seasons, while Texas has sputtered to a 16-20 conference record and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Rick Barnes.
The success of this season does not hinge on Texas unseating Kansas from its perch atop the Big 12, but if this young and surging Longhorns squad is going to make a shocking run at the conference crown this year, we'll know by Saturday evening.
Kansas Jayhawks Personnel
Bill Self has racked up Big 12 titles with some pretty experienced teams, but this isn't one of them; the Jayhawks are every bit as green as are the Longhorns. Like Texas, Kansas' regular rotation is almost entirely comprised of underclassmen, bolstered by a single junior -- Jonathan Holmes for Texas and Nadir Tharpe for KU.
That's actually not a bad place to start in understanding the Jayhawks' success so far this season. Much like Texas has benefitted from Holmes' breakout junior campaign, Kansas' surge after a 9-4 non-conference season owes in no small part to point guard Nadir Tharpe's explosion to open Big 12 play. Like Holmes, Tharpe was an inefficient and inconsistent sophomore last year who has blossomed into a tremendously effective player as a junior. And just like Holmes, a lot of it has to do with shot selection: Tharpe is picking his spots from beyond the arc (44% on 64 attempts this year, up from 33% on 106 attempts last season) and playing within the offense both as a scorer and facilitator (30.3% Assist Rate).
Without Tharpe's big step forward, Kansas' backcourt would look questionably thin as it reloads from the loss of Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford (finally!), and Ben McLemore. That is not to say the Jayhawks are without talent, however.
Although perhaps not as immediately explosive as KU fans were hoping considering his prospect status, freshman shooting guard Wayne Selden has been effective and is getting better all the time. Although he's still learning how to make the most of his raw talent, Selden has the body of a prototypical NBA shooting guard and the sweet shooting stroke to match it. More surprising has been the success of back up point guard Frank Mason, a less heralded recruit thought to be more of an offensive project than he has been thus far. Mason is built like a fire plug and has a great understanding of how to put his body strength to productive use on the basketball court. That holds true equally on both ends of the floor, and more so than Tharpe, I worry about Mason causing problems for Isaiah Taylor, either by using his physical strength to disrupt Zeke's penetration or by getting Taylor in foul trouble with penetration of his own.
Turning to the Jayhawks' young frontcourt, you won't see a more terrifyingly talented group anywhere in the country. You've probably heard of this Andrew Wiggins character, and he's just like BON's co-founder by the same name, only 10 inches taller and less cynical. Although I include Wiggins in the frontcourt, think of him more like Kevin Durant -- he's got lethal game inside and out, with the length and athleticism to be an effective presence around the rim and range that extends to 22 feet. I hate to say this of the enemy, but his elevation, balance, and follow through on his jump shot give me the butterflies.
Wiggins' ceiling isn't "Best Basketball Player on the Planet," but his most likely career trajectory is perennial NBA All-Star, so we're talking about a hyper-elite talent here. Running with the theme of this Jayhawks' roster, Wiggins is getting better and better as the season progresses, and he's a threat to erupt for a game-defining performance any time he steps on the court; we could easily find ourselves on Sunday morning saying, "Texas played great, but hey, what're you gonna do when a guy goes off for 30 points like Wiggins did?"
Unfortunately, Wiggins has competition on his team for most impressive freshman. Though early on in the year it looked like he might take a little while to develop, 7-0 center Joel Embiid is making a charge towards Big 12 Player of the Year, and may well be the #1 player selected in this year's NBA Draft. Embiid is huge, he moves well, he's skilled, he has good hands, and he's got excellent basketball instincts. He's like Cam Ridley, except taller, more athletic, and further along his development curve at a younger age.
That's enough, right? Do we really have to discuss sophomore forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Taylor? Unfortunately, we do, as both players are delivering outstanding production. Ellis is the starter at power forward and more polished offensive player, but Taylor is in some ways the more dangerous player and may well have the higher long-term ceiling. As Taylor continues to smooth out his rough edges, Bill Self is trusting him with more minutes, and when he's able to stay on the floor by not fouling or coughing up excessive turnovers, he's a frightening complementary force to Embiid on the interior. As for Ellis, his game is more quiet and his impact less pronounced, but he's the kind of player who can wind up with 15 points in the box score without you really noticing.
Keys to the Game & Prediction
The Erwin Center is going to be packed with a boisterous, eager crowd on Saturday afternoon, and if Texas can be the team doing the dictating, this is absolutely a winnable contest on the Longhorns' home floor. Above all else, that means winning in transition, something which Texas has done well all year, but which could also fuel Kansas' superior talent to another Big 12 road win.
Part and parcel with outplaying Kansas in transition is the need for Isaiah Taylor to play 30+ minutes unencumbered by foul trouble. We can win this game with a great game from Taylor, we can win it with great games from Taylor and Felix, but this isn't a game we're going to win with just a great game from Felix. If we're forced to sit Taylor for extended periods of time, the shape of the game will very quickly and decisively shift to Kansas' favor. They will beat us in a halfcourt-oriented game 9 times out of 10.
This is a big game for Cam Ridley, obviously, but the odds are we won't get to the finish line ahead without some strong minutes from Prince Ibeh, as well. That doesn't mean a game-of-his-life breakout performance, but it does mean playing 15 productive minutes without Dexter Pittman-like fouling. When he's able to manage strong/smart play, Ibeh's talent easily takes care of the productive part.
Finally, this is a game in which we'll need to make the right sacrifices. Kansas is a pick-your-poison offense, and while I'm generally terrified of allowing a team to bury you three points at a time, this is a match up where we're simply going to have to defend the rim, control the defensive glass, and tip our caps if KU rips it from deep. I'd wager there's an inverse correlation between Kansas dunks and Texas' win probability.
As for a prediction... I was delighted to see this team not just beat Baylor on the road, but dominate them, which is making it really hard to suppress my inner optimist for Saturday's match up with Kansas. The Jayhawks are the better team on paper, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them lick us by double-digits in Lawrence, but I can see things going the right way for us on our home floor tomorrow. I don't like our chances of coming from behind to win this game, but if we can get off to a start that both energizes an eager crowd, puts the pressure on a Kansas' young team, and enables a young Texas team to play to its strengths, then it's well within the realm of possibilities that Texas makes it six in a row. And gives itself a shot at challenging KU's run at ten in a row. Texas keeps rolling, 77-73.