The conference season has come down to this. One game at home against the team that has owned the Big 12 conference since its inception. The #7 Horns (23-4, 11-2) take on the #18 Kansas Jayhawks (20-6, 11-2) 8 PM CST at the Erwin Center for the Big 12 title. Both teams have two more conference games following Saturday night's meeting but this one will likely decide the champion. The Horns enter the game riding just a one game winning streak but have won six of their last seven and 15 of their last 17. However, Texas is not playing its best basketball. Kansas started the season slowly. They lost two of three in the Maui Invitational to finish seventh of eight teams and sputtered to a 3-4 start overall. Since beating California in early December, the Jayhawks are 17-2 and have won their last 10 straight. From the beginning of the season until today, Kansas is the most improved team in the country.
The Jawhawks are the youngest team in the Big 12 and one of the youngest in the country. Seven of their top eight players are freshman or sophomores. It took a few games early in the season for this team to gel. Bill Self should be considered for national coach of the year. Recruiting and signing talent is the first step but getting them to play together and excel is what has made his job this year so impressive.
Kansas is led by three outstanding freshmen, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, and Mario Chalmers. Rush will be freshman of the year in the conference. He is averaging 15 points and seven rebounds in Big 12 play. Both lead the team and rank him in top 10 of the Big 12. At 6'6" 207 lbs, Rush can shoot the three ball, handle the ball with ease, post up his defender, and pound the glass at both ends. He considered skipping college last season and heading straight to the NBA. It wouldn't have been a bad decision last year and staying in school past this season is unlikely. Rush, like PJ Tucker, is a matchup problem for opposing teams. He is too big to be defended by a small guard and too quick with and without the ball to be defended by a power forward. When Texas plays man to man defense, Tucker will face his biggest challenge of the year.
Julian Wright, while not Magic Johnson, has tremendous talent. Against Baylor earlier in the week, Wright had 20 points on 10/11 shooting in just 22 minutes. He is extremely long, capable of grabbing rebounds on both ends of the court even while out of position, and passes the ball exceptionally well for a college big man. He too will be a difficult match for Texas' big men.
The last freshman is 6'2" guard Mario Chalmers. Chalmers has been outstanding in Big 12 play. He is averaging 14.6 points, nearly five assists, and leads the conference with over three steals per game. He can shoot from the outside or take the ball to the basket with ease. The other two starters are 6'1" point guard Russell Robinson and 6'11" center Sasha Kaun. Robinson is fourth in the conference in assists, just behind Chalmers, third in steals, and eighth in assist/turnover ratio. While not a dangerous scorer, Robinson runs the KU offense well. Kaun is Russian and is still learning the game. He contributes about eight points and six rebounds per night.
Arguments can be made both ways when matching Texas' starters to Kansas' starters. But everyone can agree that Kansas has the advantage with their bench. Coach Self plays ten guys more than ten minutes per game. He gets experience off his bench with senior guard Jeff Hawkins and senior forward Christian Moody. He also gets a valuable 15 minutes per game from 6'11" sophomore center CJ Giles. Kansas loves to get up and down the court and have the productive bodies to do it. They lead the conference in scoring. Kansas loves to push the ball, even off made baskets. While opposing teams are slapping hands after making a jumper, Robison and Chalmers are pushing the ball down the court. Kansas scores fast break baskets off opposing team's made baskets. Amazing.
I expect Kansas to run and gun even on the road. They will try to wear down the Horns who are six, maybe seven deep. Kansas will also pressure the basketball all game long. Look for Kansas to pressure full court and from the time line in. The Jayhawks lead the conference in field goal percentage defense. Getting quality shots in the half court will be a priority on Saturday night and a necessity for a victory.
Keys to a Texas Victory
These are very similar just about every game.
- Stiff Defense As mentioned in recaps to the OSU and KSU games, Texas has not been playing solid defense. We are giving up dribble penetration too easily, not blocking out, and not forcing enough turnovers. The zone hasn't been as effective recently. Look for Texas to play more man to man if they can stay out of foul trouble. Early foul trouble on Lamarcus Aldridge or PJ Tucker would be devastating. When Texas holds opponents under 40% from the floor, they win. 20-0 this season.
- Rebounding Texas and Kansas are very comparable rebounding teams. Kansas averages more total boards but Texas is slightly ahead in rebounding margin in conference games. If either club is able to dominate the glass, it will go a long way to a victory.
- Turnovers The Jawhawks have been turnover happy at times this season. In fact, they have turned the ball over at least 12 times in every game this year. If Texas is able to force turnovers and get easy points off them, that could more than make up for our stagnant half court offense.
- Aldridge and Tucker I don't see how Texas wins without big games from both of them. They will be key to keeping Rush, Kahn, and Wright off the glass. They are also our two best offensive threats. Daniel Gibson, AJ Abrams, and Kenton Paulino must feed one of them on every offensive possession. Tucker could solidify Big 12 Player of the Year with a solid performance.