Rick Barnes' Longhorns (13-5, 3-1) conclude a three game road trip tonight as they visit Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers (12-5, 1-2). The 'Horns are reeling from back-to-back tough losses on the road - a triple overtime heartbreaker in Stillwater to Oklahoma State and an uninspiring egg laid against Villanova in Philadelphia.
Neither loss can be considered a "bad" one, as both the Cowboys and Wildcats are RPI Top 25 teams, but the manner in which Texas dropped its game in Philadelphia has both Rick Barnes and fans of the team questioning whether this team is going to be able to take that next step forward.
There aren't too many "must win" games in the NCAA basketball regular season, what with teams having so many opportunities - plus their conference tournaments - to prove themselves worthy to the postseason Selection Committee, but this is as close to one as you're likely to find. Should Texas lose to the Huskers tonight, they'll have dropped all
their true road games but one of their true road games this season and would find themselves the losers of three straight games.
Scouting the Huskers
Nebraska hasn't won a single game outside Lincoln this season, but are a perfect
12-0 9-0 at home for the year. The good news is that the Huskers haven't beat a single opponent in the RPI Top 60 yet this season.
The Huskers feature three players who score in double figures per game - Aleks Maric, Ryan Anderson, and Jamel White. It's Maric, a 6-11 junior center, who's most critical to Nebraska's offense. Averaging 18 points and 7.5 boards per game, the Huskers try to run everything through him. Using advanced metrics, we see just how vital Maric is to the Huskers' offensive attack. That's not an encouraging sign for Texas, who's suffered when teams have excelled at interior offense.
The biggest challenge for Texas, then, will be finding ways to get quality minutes out of their post players. It's unlikely Atchley's big or long enough to manage Maric in the low post, and Texas probably doesn't want to waste all of Kevin Durant's energy defending the interior. Could that mean, then, that we get our first look at a Dexter Pittman-heavy gameplan? Barnes did say, following the Villanova loss, that it was something he's thinking about, and really, I can't think of a better game in which to try him out. Pittman would, at the very least, provide a physical presence for Maric to have to bang with. Even if Barnes could "steal" 15 minutes from Pittman, it would probably be worth it.
The Horns are a far more athletic team than the Huskers, and more efficient on offense. Winning the game will come down to forcing things away from Maric and into the hands of less talented players away from the basket. Is there anyone better than Pittman for achieving that goal?
The alternative - Matt Hill - may get a shot early in the game, especially since he'll be playing in a homecoming game. But Hill's not shown any ability to play big time college basketball yet; it would be unwise for Rick to count on Hill making much of a contribution.
It's anyone's guess how Texas will fare after the lackluster effort we saw against Villanova, but you can bet that Rick Barnes will have explained, in no uncertain terms, how badly this team needs to win in Lincoln tonight. I expect Texas to crash the rebounding glass with unprecedented ferocity, and put forth their best defensive effort of the season. I doubt this game will get in to too much of an uptempo running game, so my best guess is that we're in a race to 70. Texas gets there first, and wins, 75-69.
The Wednesday, Jan. 24 Texas-Nebraska game is being produced by Fox Sports Net Midwest.
If you are a satellite television subscriber, the Texas-Nebraska game will be carried in all Texas markets on the Fox Sports Net Southwest alternate channel (DirecTV Ch. 667 and Dish Network Ch. 448).
If you are a cable television subscriber, the Texas-Nebraska game will be carried on Fox Sport Net Southwest in these markets: Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, El Paso and parts of San Angelo.
The game also will be carried in the Tyler-Longview area on KYTX-DT (Ch. 2) and cable Ch. 2.