Saturday, Jan 24, 2009, 7:00 PM CST * Frank Erwin Center
Television: ESPN-U (Clay Matvik and Dicky Simpkins)
Radio: 98.1 FM / 1300 AM (Austin) / XM Satellite Channel 231
Las Vegas Line: Texas -13.0 / Ken Pomeroy Data Prediction: Texas 68-58
Other Game Previews: TexasSports.com / Barking Carnival
Side-By-Side Season Comparison
|Texas A&M||Texas||Texas A&M||Texas|
|Overall Record||15-4||13-4||Offensive Efficiency (Rank)||105.6 (93)||107.7 (74)|
|Conference Record||1-3||2-1||Defensive Efficiency (Rank)||94.8 (73)||86.9 (11)|
||11-1||8-0||Strength of Schedule Rank||#126||#50|
|Away / Neutral Record||2-2 / 2-2||2-2 / 4-1||Quality Wins||Arizona
|Record Last 5 and 10 Games||2-3 / 7-3||3-2 / 7-3||Losses||n-Tulsa
at Okie St
Texas A&M's trip to Austin marks the final game of a particularly biting five-game stretch in the scheduloe, during which the Aggies traveled to Gallager-Iba (L, 61-72), returned to College Station for contests against Baylor (W, 84-73) and Oklahoma (L, 63-69), then returned to the road to battle Kansas (L, 53-73). Holding serve at home against Baylor was critical, but after going 0-for-2 on bids to steal a road win against a South Division competitor, Saturday night's game against the Longhorns is a "must-win" for Texas A&M if there are to be any realistic hopes of getting back in the conference title race.
For the 'Horns, tonight's contest is the first of a five-game stretch critical to their own conference title hopes: After A&M's visit tonight, Texas will travel Tuesday to Waco, then pivot for three North Division opponents -- back-to-back Erwin Center games against Kansas State and Missouri, followed by a road trip to Lincoln. Anything worse than a 3-2 mark over the next five would knock the 'Horns out of the Top 25, kill any hopes of a conference title, and launch Texas onto or near the dreaded NCAA tournament bubble. With that said, not only am I having a hard time imagining Texas losing three or more of the next five seem, I'm greedily thinking about what the much more likely five-game sweep could do to position Texas exceptionally well for the stretch run.
While every team is likely to improve over the course of a season, I have since early November repeatedly argued/hoped aloud that this year's Texas team is a particularly likely candidate to demonstrate a marked elevation in team play as it closes out the season. Maybe that's little more than PB fan-fueled wishcasting, but if not and Texas is building towards a notable February/March breakthrough, winning five straight beginning tonight not only would keep the team in the thick of the Big 12 title race, but would provide a nice surge in confidence/momentum just as the group was rounding into top-end form. If Rick Barnes' team won the next five while noticeably gelling into top form and suddenly it wouldn't seem unrealistic to think Texas at least had a shot at closing out the season winning everything at home and stealing at least one -- ideally two -- of its final three on the road (A&M, Oklahoma State, and Kansas.)
All told tonight's game is exceptionally important for both teams, though for different reasons. Rick Barnes and Texas have much more to worry about should they lose than they will to celebrate if they protect home court. For the Aggies, it's pretty difficult to overstate the value a road win tonight would mean for them -- not only in keeping them alive and kicking in the conference race, but also as a quality win that can impact what happens in March.
More on the game after the jump.
THE MATCH UP
For all the focus on hoped-for developments related to offense, breaking down tonight's match up ideally illustrates why it is that a few offensive developments here and there could wind up the having such a disproportionately strong impact on the team's ceiling. More on tonights players and game strategies below, but the long and the short of it is that the 2008-09 Longhorns are up there with the 2005-06 team as Rick Barnes' most athletic and defensively-skilled groups. For all his struggles on offense, Connor Atchley remains an uncannily great shot blocker and solid overall defender. Justin Mason, Varez Ward, Gary Johnson, and Damion James are all hyper-athletes who clearly like playing D. The previously disinterested AJ Abrams this year is showing infinitely more concern for contributing baseline to baseline and is putting his natural quickness to productive use. And lest we forget, even the 18-year old point guard imported from Turkey is outrageously athletic and both eager and able to play quality physical defense. The only player who has consistently looked out and out atrocious on defense is Clint Chapman, and he's of late been relegated to end-of-bench status. I doubt it's a coincidence.
Turning to tonight's game, though I'll be watching Texas' offense closely hoping to see some meaningful progress both among individuals and as a collective, it's the Longhorns' exceptional athleticism and defensive skill/tenacity which are entirely responsible for my ovevrall confidence in tonight's match up. The 2009 Aggies are once again a long, physical, and athletic team. They rebound well and play strong defense -- especially anywhere near the rim, which they protect well. What the Aggies lack is any semblance of consistent flow in the offensive halfcourt. More on that in a moment, but first a few thoughts on A&M's personnel.
Looking at the guards, Donald Sloan is a slash-n-gun/all-over-the-place point guard who looks like he should be playing for Tom Penders; he'll make some nice things happen over the course of the game, but it's almost always an inefficient effort. Sophomore guard BJ Holmes will hit an open jumper but has no ability to create his own look or score in traffic. Senior Josh Carter has surprised me with how well he's stepped up into a lead role on offense and when he's at his best the Aggies are dangerous.
Moving to the Aggie frontcourt, while super-athlete Bryan Davis is a physical specimen to be reckoned with, he lacks polish making controlled basketball moves and provides only a modest scoring threat. Truthfully, less heralded 6-10 center Chinemelu Elonu is the potential difference maker on the interior to keep an eye on. He's l-o-n-g and looks like a vacuum cleaner sucking up rebounds; if Texas fails to keep a body on him he will make them pay with offensive rebounds and follow-up scores.
If my rough and dirty synopsis of A&M's offense sounds a bit incoherent, then good. Mark Turgeon arrived in College Station on the heels of mid-major success -- his teams known for running well a varaiation of the basic motion offense. Turgeon hasn't yet been able to re-create that offensive fluidity with either of his A&M teams. Turgeon arrived immediately after the graduation of standout point guard Acie Law, the first-year team he inherited a logjam of frontcourt brutes, and Donald Sloan the heir to Law at point. The resulting offense was oftentimes painful to watch as Turgeon waffled between systematically installing his motion offense, on the one hand, and what amounted to ad hoc attempts to utilize the playing talent he actually inherited, on the other.
This year hasn't been a whole lot better, with the Aggies unhealthily dependent on Josh Carter freeing himself for looks, and making them. Too many possessions end in contested shots from beyond the arc. Donald Sloan leads the team in field goals attempted. It's mostly a sloppy mess, and if reading about it made you think A&M sounds an awful lot like Texas at its offensive worst this year... good. The similarities are real.
And that, ultimately, is why I feel pretty good about tonight's game. These teams are strikingly similar in quite a few ways, but Texas not only features the slightly stronger defense, Rick Barnes also has a deeper and more versatile roster of athletic players at his disposal -- an advantage that allows Texas to be highly variable. In the long run, as players like Balbay and Johnson continue charging up their steep learning curve, it's that roster depth and variability which fuel my hope that this offense will make the kinds of important strides that, combined with the stellar defense, help the 'Horns become a Sweet 16+ basketball team.
On the other side, unless Josh Carter is some kind of unstoppable, it's difficult to imagine this A&M squad having much offensive success tonight. In theory, Turgeon's best strategy might be a deliberate effort to slow down tonight's game, creating a frontcourt slugfest, and forcing Texas to conquer its own halfcourt demons against a solid, physical defense. In all likelihood, tonight's game will be some varition of an ugly heavyweight fight, which may keep things close, but unless Carter goes off I'm imagning the Donald Sloan Show will go on.