The University of Texas Mens' basketball season tips off this Friday with a home game against Fresno State. The Bulldogs last visited Austin in December, 1996, when they were led by towel-chewing outlaw-coach Jerry Tarkanian. The Runnin' Horns beat Tark the Shark's team by a score of 98-86. The two teams met the following season, at Fresno State, with Texas losing by eight points. They haven't played since 1998.
When Fresno State team arrives at the Erwin Center on Friday, it will be coached by a familiar face to Texas fans. Long time Rick Barnes assistant Rodney Terry starts his second season as the head coach of the Bulldogs. In Terry's first year, Fresno State went 13-20 overall, finishing seventh in the WAC with a 3-11 conference record. Terry is building a decent program at Fresno State, but his team looks like it might still be a year away. Additionally, the Bulldogs are banged up at the moment, and won't be at full strength to start the season.
The strength of Fresno State for now appears to be its back court. Returning from last season is junior guard and leading scorer Kevin Olekaibe. Olekaibe is recovering from an elbow injury, and as of this writing, it is not certain if he will be ready to play for the game in Austin. Olekaibe was the focal point of the Bulldog offense last season, taking over 30 percent of the team's shots while he was on the floor. He does most of his damage from the perimeter. Last season more than half of his shot attempts were from beyond the three point line. Olekaibe rarely gets to the rim.
If Olekaibe cannot go, Fresno State still has a deep backcourt. Allen Huddleston, a transfer from Pacific, is a dangerous outside shooter. Huddleston also served as the Bulldog's primary playmaker in their exhibition game against Fresno Pacific. Junior Tyler Johnson and freshman Marvelle Harris are also expected to play significant minutes at guard.
The Bulldogs will not have the services of their top recruit, 6-11 center Robert Upshaw, for a few more weeks. He is still recovering from a preseason injury. Kevin Foster and Jerry Brown are the two most experienced front court players for coach Terry. Foster is a good rebounder who the Longhorns will need to keep off the offensive glass. Foster struggled last season finishing attempts at the rim, which hurt his scoring efficiency. Brown was the better offensive player of the two Bulldog forwards last year. 6-10 Freshman center Tanner Giddings will also be expected to play a lot. During Fresno State's exhibition game, Giddings pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked 5 shots in 25 minutes.
Last season Fresno State struggled in many ways. Rebounding, shooting, and protecting the rim were all problems. But one thing coach Terry's team did well was take care of the basketball. The Bulldogs had the 14th lowest turnover rate in Division I, at just under 17 percent. Texas fans shouldn't be surprised that a former Rick Barnes assistant stresses ball security. The Bulldogs also forced their share of turnovers, so protecting the ball will be important for the Texas guards. This is something to keep an eye on, particularly with freshman Javan Felix likely to do much of the ball handling for the Longhorns.
On paper, this looks like a match-up that significantly favors the much larger and more talented Longhorns. Still, it wouldn't surprise me to see Texas struggle at times, particularly against Fresno State's experienced guards. Inside, the Bulldogs will be no match for Texas, and I fully expect the Longhorn front line to have a fun evening getting second chance points on the offensive glass.