The #14 Texas Longhorns (12-2) face their final non-conference test of the season as the #24 St. Mary’s Gaels (12-1) visit Austin, and it will be a stiff one. Tip time is 5 p.m. and the game will be televised by Fox Sports Southwest in Texas only and on ESPN Full Court. After dropping two straight, the Horns rebounded with a home win over TCU on Wednesday afternoon in Gary Johnson’s debut. The Longhorns were without the services of AJ Abrams in that one and struggled on both offense and defense. AJ has been cleared to play and will hopefully give the Horns the kick start they will definitely need against a very solid St. Mary’s team.
Tough Schedule Continues
The Horns have already played at least four teams who are favored to win their leagues (Tennessee--SEC; UCLA--Pac-10; Oral Roberts--Summit; Michigan State--Big 10) and face another in St. Mary’s who will certainly challenge Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference crown this season. The Gaels won their first seven games of the year, the most impressive being a 99-87 home victory over then-#11 Oregon. Their only loss of the season came at Southern Illinois on December 11th. St. Mary’s dropped that one by 15 points but has responded by winning their last five contests and will enter the Erwin Center on a roll.
Two good pieces of news for Horns fans. One, St. Mary’s hasn’t played since December 29th. So, I will not be surprised to see a rusty start for the Gaels. Second, St. Mary’s has lost their only true road of the season so far, and even with the students still on semester break, the Erwin Center should be close to capacity. With football season over, basketball is the only game in town.
St. Mary’s Starters
St. Mary’s is led by three double digit scorers and one exceptional point guard in 6-0 Patrick Mills. Mills is an Aborigine freshman from Australia who announced himself to the world of American college basketball with a 37 point performance in the upset win over Oregon. He leads the team with 16 points per game, 4.1 assists per game, 33.2 minutes per game, and in total three-pointers made. Mills has also excelled with a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. Last, Mills shoots 83% from the free throw line, which could be important in a close game.
The second Gael to be concerned with is the reigning West Coast Conference player of the month, 6-7 junior forward Diamon Simpson. He is nearly averaging a double-double at 12.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Simpson is shooting a solid 56% from the floor and prefers to do most of his damage on the low blocks. Gary Johnson will be given a big challenge on the defensive end in just his second career start.
The third starter scoring in double figures for St. Mary’s is also the largest. Omar Samham is a solid 6-11, 265 lbs and is scoring 12.2 points and grabbing 7.2 boards per game. Samham has taken and made more field goals than any other Gael. Connor Atchley will probably draw the defensive assignment here. I also expect Dexter Pittman and Alexis Wangmene to be given opportunities to body up with Samham. It will be extremely important for whoever is guarding Samham to not fall for pump fakes and get into unnecessary foul trouble.
The other two starters for St. Mary’s are 6-2 senior guard Todd Golden and 6-7 junior forward Ian O’Leary. Golden is a steady shooting guard who is struggling some from the floor (36%) but not from the line (92%). He is also outstanding at protecting the ball with a 4.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. O’Leary is scoring 8.2 points and grabbing 4.0 rebounds per game from the three spot. He is also a threat from three-point range and has knocked down 37% from long range on the season.
The advanced metric statistics on St. Mary’s reveal a very good basketball team on both ends of the floor. The Gaels are #32 overall, #55 in adjusted offensive efficiency and #36 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Pomeroy. On offense, the Gaels are particularly efficient scorers from inside the three-point arc with Samham and Simpson. St. Mary’s has also done a solid job protecting the basketball and getting to the free throw line.
On defense, the Gaels are even more impressive. Opponents shoot just 44.7% from inside the arc and just 27.1% from three-point range. It is clear that St. Mary’s uses its quickness to disrupt their opponents backcourts and their size to disrupt their opponents inside game. The Texas offense has not been clicking in their last four games and will really be challenged to score against St. Mary’s.
Against Michigan State, DJ picked up a second foul shortly before the end of the first half, the Spartans went on a run and never looked back. Against TCU on Wednesday, DJ picked up a second foul with ten minutes left in the first and sat the rest of the way. With Justin Mason at the point and AJ in street clothes, the Horns struggled to put the ball in the basket and led by just two points at the break. With Johnson on the floor, the Texas offense will begin to get more dynamic, but right now, the Horns must have DJ on the floor to be effective.
Barnes must be so tired of watching the Longhorns jump out of the gym every time an opposing player raises an eyebrow toward the basket. Not only are the Longhorns landing themselves in foul trouble and on the bench, but they are jumping completely out of position, which leads to dribble penetration or open looks from three. At halftime of the TCU game, four of the five starter had two fouls. St. Mary’s has eight players who average more than 14 minutes per game. They are deep, talented, and prefer to play at an up tempo pace. Texas is obviously more talented but cannot afford to go deep into its bench for extended minutes against quality teams.
This is going to be a close game. In close games, easy points matter even more. Overall, Texas is a good free throw shooting team, 71% on the year, but has struggled recently: Michigan State 65%, Wisconsin 50%, and TCU 63%. Texas is not scoring the ball well enough right now to leave points at the line.
This is a very big game for the Longhorns. If Texas takes this one, they’ll finish 13-2 in non-conference games with two excellent resume wins and head into Big XII play with confidence. Lose this one and the Horns will have dropped three of their last four and face the daunting task of starting conference play on the road against a helter skelter Missouri team.
I know that it is only January and this team has just transformed itself with the addition of Johnson, but this afternoon’s outcome could have a significant effect on the psyche of this team. This is a very scary game: St. Mary’s has a talented point guard, the ability to score the ball inside at will, and plays solid defense. Texas is not playing up to its potential but they’ll somehow come out of this one victorious.