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#19 Longhorns Look for First Conference Victory

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The #19 Texas Longhorns (13-3, 0-1) are back in action for the first time in a week as they take on Big XII bottom feeding Colorado (9-7, 1-1). Tonight’s contest will be the conference home opener for the Horns and, as ridiculous as it may sound just one game into conference season, this is a ‘must win’ for the Longhorns have any chance to contend for the conference title. The game will tip at 7 p.m. and be televised by ESPN Plus (KNVA Cable Channel 12 in Austin).

Schedule Ahead
The Horns began conference season unceremoniously in Columbia, Missouri as they dropped their conference opener for the first time ever under Coach Barnes. While it would be a small miracle to beat Kansas and win the Big XII, the Horns do have a legitimate chance at second place. In order to finish conference runner-ups, Texas probably needs to get to at least 12-4, if not 13-3. After already dropping a road game to the Tigers, protecting the home court becomes even more crucial.

Some fans are probably thinking I’ve had a bit too much of the burnt orange kool aid and I probably have, but I still think that this team will gel around Gary Johnson over the upcoming games, improve their performance on the defensive end, and gain some much needed confidence over the next three games. The next three games are all winnable: tonight vs. Colorado, at Oklahoma State on Monday, and at home vs. Texas Tech next Saturday. After that, the next string is much tougher with three of the four on the road. So, taking care of business beginning tonight is critical.

Colorado on the Season
The Buffaloes have not been very good this season, although they are coming off their most impressive win of the season. Colorado is just 9-7 on the year and 3-3 on the road. CU is ranked 126th in Pomeroy’s Ratings and 145th in Pomeroy’s RPI. Their win over Nebraska, 55-51, on Tuesday night was their first win over a team ranked in the top 175 of Pomeroy’s ratings. CU and Texas do have one common opponent through the first part of the season, Wisconsin. The Badgers defeated both teams, winning handily, 78-52, in Boulder in early November.

The Bzdelik Era
Jeff Bzdelik was hired by Colorado in the off-season after coaching for two years at Air Force. He takes over the program from long-time coach Ricardo Patton. Bzdelik has a history of turning around underperforming programs. While halfway through his first season is way too early to expect much success, I won’t be surprised if Colorado jumps into the tier with Kansas State and Missouri in the North over the next couple of seasons. Interesting tidbit: Bzdelik and Coach Barnes were both assistant coaches at Davidson College from 1978-80 but will be meeting as opposing head coaches for the first time in their careers.

Colorado’s Starters
The Buffs are led for the third straight season by 6-6, 200 lb small forward, Richard Roby. Roby has flirted with the NBA after each of the last two seasons and remains Colorado’s best player by a mile. He was first team All-Conference last season and is averaging 16.2 ppg and 6.1 rpg this season, both team highs. Roby has great length and prefers to play on the perimeter. His shooting percentages, 54% from two-point range, 38% from three, and 82% from the line, are all up from last season. Despite being primarily a wing player, he is the second tallest CU starter. It will be interesting to see if Gary Johnson or Damion James is challenged with shutting down CU’s best player.

Senior Marcus Hall, 6-2 175, is a solid point guard who leads the team in minutes, assists, and steals. Hall is also the team’s second leading scorer at 12.6 ppg and an above average rebounder at 4.0 rpg, despite his size. Coach Barnes again has as choice with his defensive match up. Does he challenge DJ Augustin to shut down the opposition’s point guard but risk getting him into foul trouble or does AJ Abrams draw this assignment, which leaves DJ to match up with a 6-5 player instead? I don’t have the answer but it is clear that starting two guard sub 6-0 presents clear defensive problems even against mediocre teams.

Colorado starts a pair of 6-5 wing players, freshman Cory Higgins and sophomore Xavier Silas. Higgins has been a nice surprise for Coach Bzdelik and has started all 16 games so far this season. He is averaging 8.7 ppg, is shooting an outstanding 57% from inside the arc, and has been a solid contributor on the boards and on the defensive end. Silas is the third Buffalo averaging in double figures at 10.7 ppg. Silas is an Austin High School product and the son of NBA veteran James Silas.

The final CU starter will be 6-6 Jermyl Jackson-Wilson. He is a very good rebounder who is averaging 4.7 boards per game in just 19 minutes of action.

Ken Pomeroy
Pomeroy’s stats on Colorado show an average ball club. CU is 133rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 142nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. Neither number is horrible considering there are over 300 Division I teams, but neither number should be cause for concern either. The Buffaloes shoot the ball well from inside the three-point arc but struggle shooting the three, on the offensive glass, and at getting to the free throw line. Expect to see Texas play some 2-3 to prevent the dribble drive and force CU to launch, hopefully contested, three-pointers.

On defense, the Buffs are solid at taking away their opponents’ interior games and on the defensive glass. Despite their size on the perimeter, they are allowing opponents to shoot 39% from three. Maybe AJ Abrams can find his shooting stroke this evening.

Keys to the Game:
(1) Defend: This will be a key to every game for the rest of the season. It is a hard to imagine as poor a defensive performance as we saw in Colombia, so just about anything tonight will be an improvement. The Horns must get better at rotating on the defensive end, finding shooters on the perimeter, and blocking out, especially when they play zone.

(2) Get Mason and Atchley Back Involved: Mason is totally lost, while Atchley has been invisible over the last month. The Texas offense is based primarily on DJ’s ability to penetrate and when opponents have limited his ability to get into the lane, the Texas offense has sputtered. It is time to adjust, and other players must step up. Connor needs to knock down a couple of threes off the high pick and pop and also get inside position for a few touches on the low blocks. Meanwhile, Mason needs to regain the form he showed at the beginning of the season when he was disrupting offenses with his energy and quick hands and using angles to get into the lane on the other end.

(3) Feed the Post, at least a few times: With DJ, AJ, and Damion, the Horns have maybe the most prolific scoring trio of perimeter players in the country. While that is obviously nice to have, to be an elite team, Texas must play better defense and must develop at least somewhat of an inside game. This starts with Johnson but shouldn’t finish with him. Someone else is going to have to step up on the front court. I don’t know who it will be but whoever steps up and provides even a small interior presence will surely be rewarded with increased minutes.

This one shouldn’t be close. Pomeroy predicts a 19 point victory, Vegas has the Horns as 17.5 point favorites, and Colorado has lost 23 straight road games to ranked opponents. Preview on Damion James’s Versatility