Well, here we go. It's game on for Texas and 63 other teams. The next loss is your last loss.
The season will come to an end for either the Longhorns or Sun Devils tonight, but the winner gets to keep dreaming. Is this young Texas team ready for do-or-die?
For the most part, we really have no idea, because of the 10 Longhorns in the regular rotation, 4 are freshmen and 5 are sophomores who only know the disaster that was last year. Only junior Jonathan Holmes has experienced the NCAA Tournament, logging 4 points, 4 boards and 4 fouls in 23 minutes as a freshman in Texas' 65-59 loss to Cincinnati in the first round of the 2012 tournament.
There's much we don't know about how this Texas team will perform on the big stage, but we can say for sure that if they shoot as poorly as the Longhorns did against Cincinnati, they won't be around for the weekend. Let's talk about what does need to happen for Texas to advance.
Jahii Carson vs The World
If you follow college hoops pretty closely, you've undoubtedly heard of Arizona State's explosive point guard, Jahii Carson (pronounced jô'hee). At 5-10, 180 pounds, the sophomore has underwhelming size, but we're not talking about Javan Felix here...
Jahii Carson is the answer to the question, "What would happen if Isaiah Taylor and Damarcus Croaker had a baby?"
(Why are you looking at me like that? Seriously, he is. Did you watch that video?)
If you haven't yet read Jeff's excellent primer on Carson and the Sun Devils, now would be a good time to do so. I won't repeat what Jeff already covered so well, except to reiterate the importance for Texas to keep Carson from breaking us down with his dribble. Think back to Texas' wins over Kansas in Austin and Baylor in Waco: what Isaiah Taylor did to the Jayhawks and Bears in those two games is the existential threat Carson provides. If he's breaking down our defense on the bounce, it's game over.
I talk a lot about trade offs, and whether it's Holland, Taylor, or anyone else, whomever is guarding Carson needs to be cognizant of the proper defensive objective, and it's not to keep Carson off the scoreboard. It's to stay between Carson and the basket. Period, full stop.
Why? Because we can live with Carson scoring 25 points... if it takes him 20 shots to score them. What can't happen? We absolutely can't have Carson scoring 25 points on gobs of free throws. Nor will we survive a Sun Devil dunk festival enabled by Carson dribble penetration. It's true we'll be in deep trouble if Carson has a red hot shooting night from beyond the arc, but you have to concede something to a player of his caliber, and we're better off taking our chances on his ability to hit jumpers than with the foul trouble or easy points in the paint that would accompany dribble penetration. If Carson beats us from 20 feet out, you tip your cap and hope your guys came ready for a high scoring shootout.
Carson is not the only Arizona State player who you will immediately notice on Thursday night. There is another Sun Devil who plays above the rim, only this one doesn't have to jump to get there.
Meet Jordan Bachynski, who is all of the following: 7'2" tall, 250 pounds, a senior, twin brother of Utah's Dallin Bachynski, and 24 years old.
I see that look of confusion on your face, and I get it -- I had the same reaction. Yes, he's Mormon. And yes, he's attending Arizona State voluntarily. It's a total paradox. And get this: the Bachynskis even had the five finalists recruiting Jordan come make their pitch to Jordan in a church. Talk about selling ice to an eskimo. Nice work, Herb.
Anyway... Bachynski is living amongst the heathens and for obvious reasons will be a key player in tonight's game. Bachynski is all of the things you expect a 7-2 center to be in terms of making life difficult for opponents trying to score at the rim, but unlike many his size, he doesn't make you cringe every time he puts his body in motion. Bachynski moves well for his size, which in combination with good instincts and solid footwork have allowed him to develop into an impact player on both ends of the floor.
On the offensive end of the floor, the good news is that Bachynski is pretty severely underutilized. Despite taking care of the ball well, scoring efficiently, and racking up fouls on opponents at a strong clip, Bachynski has been limited to taking just 16.9% of ASU's shots when he's on the floor, and managed only an 8.1% offensive rebounding rate, a modest number for a player with a 20.9% defensive rebounding rate, to say nothing of his size. That's just fine by Texas, as the last thing the Longhorns need is Cam Ridley and/or Jon Holmes parked on the bench for extended minutes with foul trouble.
Bachynski's impact has been much more substantial on the defensive end, where he manages to make Ribley look rather pedestrian as shot blockers by comparison, thanks to a ridiculous 12.7% block percentage this season. He's also been an absolute vacuum cleaner on the defensive glass, and as Jeff pointed out in his article, Bachynski's prowess on the defensive glass and Texas' exceptional offensive rebounding represents one of the game's defining strength-vs-strength match ups.
As I've said many times, one way an offense can be effective is to make a lot of the shots it takes, but another is to make fewer shots but take more of them. The Texas offense falls in the latter category, of course, and will have to find alternative sources for scoring production if Bachynski is out there successfully limiting us to one shot per possession. That could be through transition offense (more on which in a moment), or more efficient shooting (not our strong suit), or shots at the free throw line. Like Jeff, I see drawing a few whistles on Bachynski to be the best and most realistic option. I have confidence in Ridley to do what needs to be done; my bigger worry, frankly, is that the guards will rack up a bunch of turnovers trying and failing to get the ball inside.
Trade Off Fail
With comparable size to Texas, Arizona State could be a good offensive rebounding team. They are, um, not good at grabbing offensive boards -- one of Division 1's worst, in fact, having grabbed just 24% of their own misses. (For comparison, Texas hauled in nearly 40% of its own missed attempts, 6th best rate nationally.) What gives?
Herb Sendek is maniacal about transition defense, to such an extreme degree that his players hardly have an opportunity to look for second chances. Thank God Sendek is not Texas' coach because this would drive me absolutely crazy, and this year's Sun Devils team perfectly illustrates why.
Back once more to trade offs: although Arizona State purposefully divests itself of a substantial amount of the value inherent to offensive rebounds, such divestiture is not accompanied by a corresponding gain. The Sun Devils allow opponents a transition field goal attempt (defined as a shot within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock) on 14% of possessions that begin with a rebound of an ASU missed shot, one of the highest rates in the country. Moreover, opponents effective field goal percentage on such shots is 48%, which isn't bad, but isn't anything to brag about and definitely not anything worth sacrificing anything valuable to attain. But that is precisely what ASU has done this year: traded the heaps of value from extra possessions gained by offensive rebounds for negligible value defending the opponent in transition.
What does that mean for Texas? Not much, apparently. I still expect Rick Barnes to tell his team to run, and unless foregoing offensive rebounding suddenly amplifies ASU's defensive prowess in transition much more than it has this season, then it all just amounts to Texas' job being that much easier on the defensive end. Uh, thanks, Herb?
Keys to the Game & Prediction
Let's tie this all together before the Madness gets under way...
1. Make Jahii Carson a jump shooter. Easier said than done, but when our players have been focused on executing a defensive game plan this year, they have largely been successful. Limiting Carson's dribble penetration is a make-or-break mission.
2. Find scoring offense in transition and/or at the line. The simplest path to offensive efficacy would be to make a whole bunch of the shots we take, but again, that is... not our strong suit. We've found success this year by making up for that in other areas, however, and ASU presents a challenge to the Longhorns' bread and butter: offensive rebounding. In theory, the Sun Devils also pose a challenge to finding points in transition, but hustling back doesn't seem to accomplish its intended purpose, so here's to hoping we spend our evening shooting free throws and/or listening to Barnes yell, "GO! GO!" as he's prone to do when he's trying to get his team to push the ball at every opportunity.
3. Don't fall behind early. Most teams struggle to play from behind, but this Texas team is especially ill-equipped to overcome a big first half deficit. First of all, we're young and inexperienced -- playing in their NCAA Tournament game ever will provide quite enough pressure for this group without adding an early deficit to the mix. We're also not a very good three-point shooting team, which is essential to erasing a deficit without asking too much of your defense. And finally, a helter-skelter comeback attempt is likely to take us away from the things we do well and become a compounding problem: instead of attacking the rim, we're jacking threes, Felix is trying to do too much all on his own, and over-eagerness becomes over-aggression becomes Jonathan Holmes fouls becomes we're screwed.
4. Let it rip. My favorite moment of the season came near the very end of the game in Chapel Hill, after UNC rallied from a double digit deficit to pull even with Texas. The Tar Heels called timeout, but just before the broadcast went to commercials, the camera gave us a very brief glimpse of Rick Barnes as his team walked over to the sidelines. And I'll be damned if he wasn't smiling. And with that big grin on his face you could read his lips as he said, "It's okay" to his young team. It was exactly what that young team needed from him, and the opposite of what he'd done with recent teams, which was mostly yell. We're a lot further into the season now, and I'm sure Barnes' expectations of this group have evolved over the course of the season just like ours have, but I hope that he's been preparing this team for this NCAA Tournament game by tapping into the same approach that he used to get us ready for playing in Chapel Hill. I hope he's able to get these kids to play fast because they feel prepared. I hope that they're able to play loose because they believe they're the better team. And I hope that they play to win rather than feel afraid to lose.
Prediction: Texas plays to win... and so it does: Texas 72 Arizona State 65