After a 10-day layoff, the #8-ranked Texas Longhorns (10-2, 0-0) return to the hardwood tonight for their first-ever meeting with the Southern Conference's Appalachian State Mountaineers (5-4, 2-0). Texas concludes its non-conference season on Tuesday evening against the surging Arkansas Razorbacks.
APPALACHIAN STATE IN 2008
The Mountaineers are 5-4 on the season, with two conference victories over Southern weak sisters Furman and Wofford, as well as a solid double overtime home win over Charlotte from the Atlantic 10. Appy State's resume further features a competitive overtime loss to UNC-Wilmington, but double-digit losses to Niagara, East Tennessee State, and Kentucky (93-69). This is not a strong basketball team.
Tapping KP's advanced ratings, the 'Neers rank 244th overall -- 212 on offense, 270 on defense. On the scouting report side, Appalachian State is deceptively athletic on the interior, gets after the offensive glass well, greedily clears defensive boards, and isn't afraid to attack the rim in an effort to get to the charity stripe. What they flex in athleticism, they lack in skill: the Mountaineers cannot shoot the ball, turn it over with alarming frequency, and lack coherence as an offensive unit (just 1 assist for every 2 FGs made).
Despite all that, this is an important game for the Longhorns in a few important regards...
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Get. Ready. For. Arkansas. With Maui, UCLA, Villanova, Michigan State, and Wisconsin on the schedule, Arkansas didn't initially stand out on the 'Horns 2009 non-conference slate, but with the Hogs' impressive eight point home win over previously undefeated Oklahoma on Tuesday night, Texas is on notice that their own trip to Fayetteville won't be a walk in the park. Important for Texas' Friday night tilt against Appy State, the Mountaineers excel in the areas of the game that Arkansas dominated in their win over the Sooners -- physical play, outstanding rebounding (42-29 edge for Arkansas), and an ability to get to the line (43 free throw attempts). The Mountaineers may stand little chance of winning in Austin, but they're physical and athletic in a way that should help Texas get ready for the Razorbacks. Let's hope Rick Barnes has his team on notice. (FYI: If you recognize the name Marcus Monk on the Arkansas roster -- you're right, it's the excellent receiver from the 2007 football team; he's back in school working on a second bachelor's degree.)
2. Find the fluidity. Texas has been at its best this year when the offense has flashed surprisingly team-oriented half court offense, featuring crisp ball movement, willingness and ability to reverse court, and a general inside-out philosophy. The random perimeter screen game is fine when the guy with the ball in his hands is DJ Augustin; when it's not, the half court offense needs to feature some semblance of a fluid, team approach. Even if Texas is a little rusty after the ten days off, I'll be happy if I see the squad working systematically to get Johnson and Pittman good touches in the paint where they can either score or (we hope) pass away from collapsing defenders to open Longhorns.
3. Be the Balbay. I wrote early in the year that my hopes for this team involved Balbay becoming a 20-25 minute-a-game point guard for this squad. Juston Mason's stellar play has changed that analysis quite a bit, but the Turkish point guard's excellent play of late adds new hope that guard depth may not be a fatal flaw for this team. Whatever our short-term goals in any given game, Rick would be wise to keep bringing along aggressively Balbay as a key contributor. Though Varez Ward has also surprised with his ability to defend and provide spark, he's (this year) more a role/energy guy than a potential half court helper -- as Balbay appears he might be.