Saturday, Jan 31, 2009, 3:00 PM CST *** Frank Erwin Center
Television: Big 12 Regional (Dave Armstrong and Reid Gettys) -- Affiliates Carrying Game
Radio: 98.1 FM / 1300 AM (Austin) / XM Satellite Channel 231
Ken Pomeroy Data Prediction: Texas 70-64
Other Game Previews: TexasSports.com
PB is getting the hell out of South Bend this weekend (high today: 13 degrees!), so I'm going to take a shot at previewing this game against Kansas State, which, while not a "big" game, per se, is still an important one for several reasons. First, Texas needs to hold serve at home to have a chance to win the Big 12. Second, Kansas State is not as bad a team as they look at first glance (tied for 8th in the Big 12 with a 2-4 record) and they present some potential troubles for the Longhorns. And third, KSU has a 2-game winning streak in Austin in football and men's basketball, and seriously, that needs to end. Seriously.
The rather long preview continues after the jump.
In Which I Try to Convince You that KSU is not Completely Terrible and Almost Convince Myself of the Opposite: The Wildcats are currently 13-7 with big wins over Missouri and, um, Cleveland State (which beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome and totally almost beat Butler!). Oh, and it took them OT to beat Colorado. Okay, they don't have a ton of good wins, but their losses are all respectable, except one to Oregon, which is currently sitting at 6-14 and 0-8 in the Pac-10. Their other non-con losses were to Kentucky and Iowa, both on neutral courts and both by only 2 points, but they then started off Big 12 play 0-4 (average margin of loss was 16 points), losing to OU and Baylor at home and Kansas and Nebraska on the road. That's an extremely tough stretch for any team and while 0-4 probably wasn't expected, it wasn't that surprising either. They then rebounded by squeaking past Colorado in OT before absolutely destroying Missouri (KenPom ranked #15) on Wednesday, 88-72. There's no reason a team that destroyed Missouri like that 3 days ago coudn't give Texas a challenge in Austin.
In Which I Try to Figure Out What, Exactly, KSU Does Well: Perusing KenPom.com, several stats jump out at you off the bat. This is an excellent rebounding team and an elite offensive rebounding team. They rank #2 in the country in percentage of total rebounds that are offensive (note: this is not the same as #2 in offensive rebounds, but statistics show this is a better barometer of offensive efficiency). They have an above-average effective shooting percentage and are pretty decent at preventing the other team from getting offensive rebounds, so I don't think this number is inflated too much by factors other than offensive rebounding skill. They are also pretty good at getting to the line and very good at not getting their shots blocked. On defense, they are good at forcing turnovers and defending 2-point shots, but put teams on the line way too often and aren't very good at defending the 3-pointer.
In Which I Try to Figure Out Why KSU Does it Well: I'll admit that I haven't seen a lot of KSU basketball this season, so I'm trying to piece their team together from stats and other narratives. But as far as I can tell, this is a relatively small, guard-oriented team. Their top-2 scorers are 6' Jacob Pullen and 6'1" Denis Clemente. They do have some size (Freshman Jamar Samuels is 6'7" and Darren Kent and Luis Colon both stand 6'10" and play significant minutes), but other than Samuels (who I believe is still coming off the bench), their playmakers are all guards. And when your guards are taking most of the shots, your big men are in position to hit the offensive glass, which KSU's big men most definitely do, as they have 5 players with 40 or more offensive rebounds on the year (Texas has 2).
In Which I Explain Why I Legitimately Think KSU Could be a Threat to Texas: I may be the only person who thinks this, but here's why: Tempo. Even though KSU and Texas operate at about the same tempo as far as season averages go (UT averages 67.5 possessions per 40 minutes, while KSU averages 68.4), KSU operates much better at a faster tempo than Texas does, and vice versa. KSU is 7-2 when the tempo is above 70 possessions per game, while Texas is only 3-3 (losses to Notre Dame, Arkansas, and Oklahoma). Meanwhile, KSU is only 6-5 when the tempo is 70 possessions or below (and only 2-4 when it's 66 or below). Texas, on the other hand, is 12-1 when the tempo is 70 or below (the loss was to Michigan State at a tempo of 66 possessions).
To get a tiny bit more in depth, for Texas, tempo has a strongly negative correlation with offensive efficiency. That is, the faster the tempo, the less efficient Texas is on offense. However, there is virtually no correlation between tempo and Texas' defensive efficiency, meaning that Texas plays about the same on defense regardless of the pace. For Kansas State, on the other hand, tempo has a strongly negative correlation with it's defensive efficiency (i.e. KSU is less efficient on defense in a fast tempo) but tempo a positive correlation with KSU's offensive efficiency (i.e. they're better on offense at a faster tempo). So if the tempo goes up, Texas gets worse on offense while KSU gets worse on defense (a statistical draw), but Texas stays the same on defense, while KSU gets better at offense (an advantage for KSU). This is a net loss for Texas, meaning that there is a strong incentive for the Longhorns to keep the tempo down.
All of this can be boiled down to the following prediction: if the tempo is kept slow, Texas is going to win the game handily. If the tempo gets above 70 possessions, Texas could find itself in a dogfight. And KSU goes much deeper than Texas does, with 8 players averaging at least 18 minutes per game (only 5 for Texas) and none playing more than 30 minutes per game (2 for Texas), which is more conducive to a fast style. I still expect Texas to win, even at a fast pace, but we could end up with a game on our hands if the tempo ends up quick. (For reference, see KenPom's Game Plan pages here and here)
In Which I Attempt to Comfort You with Reasons KSU Still Kinda Sucks: (1) Oh my god, Jacob Pullen is a turnover machine. He's got a 1.1-1 assist to turnover ratio (including an epic 3 assist, 9 turnover game against Oregon), which is objectively terrible, and in Big 12 play, he's got 16 assists to 18 turnovers. Just awful. Abrams, Mason and Balbay will have a field day pickpocketing this guy. (2) The KSU guards are short. Pullen is 6-flat, Clemente is 6'1" and Fred Brown is 6'2". Texas is usually undersized at the guards, but will match up quite well with this bunch. (3) The Wildcats are actually a worse free throw shooting team than Texas, at 65.2% (UT is 65.6%). Add that to the fact that Texas is for some reason #1 in the nation in opponents' free throw percentage (59.3% -- way to wave those arms, O-Zone?) and it's a recipe for distaster for KSU at the line. (4) You realize their coach is still Frank Martin, right? You know all those things people say about Rick Barnes being a bad coach that we mostly dismiss? They're true about Frank Martin. The guy's a good recruiter, but he just isn't that good of a coach yet. Plus, there's always the possibility that he will have a tantrum-induced heart attack on the bench during the game. Never, ever count out that possibility because when Frank Martin knows he's right about something, goddamnit, he's going to let you know via telepathy from the bulging veins in his forehead.
Frank Martin, lover of screaming at referees and
In Which I Wax Philosophical and Attempt to Make a Point About Dogus Balbay: Some might cringe at my use of statistics above to analyze a basketball game. And to a certain extent I agree with those people. Statistics can be enormously helpful in all sports, but with basketball it almost feels wrong to invoke them. If baseball is a game that requires tactical precision and is best thought of as a mano a mano duel, and football is a more team-oriented game, but a brutally precise one, like thousands of gears grinding at once in unison to move a clock, then basketball, at its best, is nothing short of an expressionist art form. Five bodies moving in different directions at different speeds but all in unison, basketball doesn't look like anything special until you take a step back and understand that its meaning comes not from what it looks like but from the feeling it evokes.
There's a beauty to the sport that comes from the knowledge that, for good basketball players, the movements of the game--the passes, the drives to the basket, the backdoor cuts--come from the subconscious. You've seen unbelievable point guards make truly no-look passes before, right? The kind where there's no way they consciously knew that a teammate was there, but subconsciously, they knew that a teammate had to be there, because if he wasn't, then it wouldn't be art. A good point guard is Jackson Pollock splattering paint on a canvas, not really knowing where it was going, but knowing that what he was creating meant something because it expressed something he felt inside, subconsciously. Basketball is, somewhat more concretely, about a subconscious flow of energy and space. "Spacing" on offense doesn't arise out of a conscious thought "Oh, I am about 1 foot too close to this other player, I should move over." It comes from a subconscious knowledge of when to move, where to move, and how to move in unison with your teammates. It's an expressionist art form.
And statistics really can't explain expressionist art. Sure, music is at its core mathematical and Mozart's classical music is said to be mathematically perfect. But that's not expressionism. Expressionism is composer Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone method of atonality and his ability to compose free-form music outside of the requirements of a traditional, central melody. Rather than compose with baseball's pinpoint precision like Mozart, or with football's brutal and emotional grinding gears like Beethoven or Wagner, expressionists compose with basketball's subconscious free-flow. And so it seems repulsive to apply numbers and statistics to a game that doesn't arise from them and cannot be defined by them. But remember that only good basketball is expressionist art. Just as A&M and OU for years played football on a basketball court, Texas this year seems to be playing baseball on the basketball court. There's no movement, there's no free flow or space. It's very much a 1-on-1 game, which requires absolute precision--something Texas can rarely muster. Texas has a very good basketball team, but there's only so far that a team can go if it's not really playing basketball on offense. Baseball offenses don't make it that far in the NCAA tournament because they rely on absolute precision of 1 person at a time rather than subconscious flow of an entire team.
But there is one person on this team that can make it play basketball like DJ Augustin did and TJ Ford did before that. Dogus Balbay. Justin Mason did a good job handling the point by taking care of the ball, but he is no Jackson Pollock with the ball. It is not art. AJ Abrams does a good job distributing the ball when he's not looking for his shot, but being a good passer does not make you a good point guard. A good point guard opens up the flow, pushes into the lane, pulls out to the perimeter, testing the molecular bonds of the defense. He draws defenders, breaking up the defensive spacing and hits a teammate keeping his offensive spacing in tact. Dogus Balbay can be that point guard. He has the ability to turn this baseball offense into a basketball team. He has the ability to create a flow of energy and spacing simply by virtue of his own energy and movement. He has the ability to turn this game into art. I'm rooting for him.
In Which I Finally Get Around to Talking About Texas Goals for the Game: (1) As mentioned before, Texas needs to slow down the pace. This shouldn't be difficult for the Horns (this offense isn't exactly a well-oiled Ferrari right now), unless they don't assert themselves defensively, allowing the Wildcats to run a little bit. (2) Harass Pullen all over the court. He's a turnover machine and Texas should trap him whenever possible. (3) Press the perimeter, don't double down low. KSU gets 27% of their points from the 3-point line and Pullen, Clemente and especially Fred Brown (40.2%) can jack it from deep, as can 6'10" Kent (7-15 on the year). But this team isn't particularly good down low. Force the big men to make something happen. (4) Use Dexter as instant offense off the bench. He's been great in that role the last two games, even running the floor well because he's not overexerted. (5) Dogus needs to get 20-25 minutes on the floor as long as he's not pushing the tempo too much. He's been a lot less frantic on offense lately and the results show it. And he's an incredibly athletic defender who can body up KSU's guards on the perimeter and still stay with them if they drive, something AJ doesn't have the lateral quickness to do. (6) Gary Johnson needs to pass once in a while. His drive to the basket and dish to Damion James against Baylor was a delight and also a shock to both Texas fans and the Bears. And the Bears' surprise was probably what made it work so well. Shock and Awe, Gary. It's basketball, not baseball. (7) Damion needs to settle down and get into the flow of the offense. He's impossible to defend when he's playing in rhythm with the rest of the offense. When he's not, he's quite easy to defend: step1, back off and hope he takes an ill-advised jumper, and step 2, if he drives instead, take a charge. It's not all his fault, as this offense doesn't move or pass extremely well, but he's part of that problem and can be part of the solution as well. (8) Get AJ Abrams involved somehow. If the screens along the baseline aren't working, put him on point and set up a few pick and pops with Connor. If the defenders go with him, kick it out to Connor (AJ is much better at getting Connor the ball in good position--or is at least more intent on doing so--than either Balbay or Mason), and if they don't, toss up the sweet mid-range jumper (but NOT that running floater...seriously AJ...stop it). (9) Crash the boards. Constantly. This team can and will kill us with offensive rebounds if there's any lack of effort on the part of the Horns. Rebounding energy has been a bright spot lately, so let's keep it up.
Other than that, just avoid slipping on any Frank Martin spittle and the Horns should be fine. Hook 'Em.