Saturday, Feb 13, 2010, 3:00 PM CST
Frank Erwin Center * Frank Erwin Center (16,734) * Austin, TX
Television: Big XII Network / ESPN Full Court (tv listings) (Armstrong, Gettys)
Ken Pom Ratings: Texas #13 / Nebraska #84
Ken Pom Predictor: Texas 76-62 (70 possessions)
Other Previews: TexasSports.com, CBSSports, Huskers.com
UPDATE: Justin Mason out with left ankle injury.
After a particularly disappointing seven game stretch that saw the Texas Longhorns go from the top ranked team in the country to a team fighting for a top four spot in the Big XII, it's time for some changes.
Longhorn fans saw two changes in Monday's loss to Kansas. First, after 23 games, Rick Barnes finally decided that playing Justin Mason and Dogus Balbay on the court at the same time was like banging your head into the wall and expecting it not to hurt. Rick sat senior Mason and replaced him with the bigger Gary Johnson. Second, after watching another first half with Balbay's man double teaming the post before a post entry pass, Barnes went the more explosive scorer and shooter, J'Covan Brown, in the second half at the point. Both moves paid dividends against the Jayhawks but neither was enough.
News now comes that Brown will receive his first starting nod since November this afternoon against Nebraska. It also appears that Texas will go back to the three-guard starting lineup and send Johnson to the bench. The expected starters will be Brown, Balbay, Avery Bradley, Damion James, and Dexter Pittman. Nebraska plays a similar three-guard lineup, so, to me, the move makes sense.
Now that we've got the lineup discussion out of the way, let's move to a quick look at Nebraska before pointing out the context this game and the rest of the regular season.
The Cornhuskers are easily the worst team in the Big XII. Doc Sadler's club has followed up a surprising 8-8 Big XII campaign last season with a 1-8 start in conference play this year. The biggest reason for their struggles may be bad luck, though. Presumed starter, Christopher Niemann (6-11, 265) was lost before the season started after re-injuring an ACL that he had surgery on just five months prior. A second presumed starter, sophomore Toney McCray (6-6, 205), played just three games in November before being lost for the season as well due to an elbow injury. Also, 6-8 forward Chris Balham decided in August to take a medical exemption for the season and end his collegiate career due to recurring knee problems. All this has led to Sadler relying heavily on freshman, redshirt freshman, and junior college transfers.
Nebraska is led by a pair of seniors, 6-4 senior small forward Ryan Anderson and 6-3 shooting guard Sek Henry. Joining them in the starting lineup will likely be 6-3 junior college transfer Lance Jeter, 6-10 freshman Brandon Ubel, and 6-11 redshirt freshman Brian Diaz.
The biggest thing that stands out about Nebraska is their pace of play. Pomeroy has their adjusted tempo at just 63.9 possessions per game (302nd quickest), while Texas prefers to play at one of the quickest paces, 74.3 possessions per game (8th quickest). I've stated a couple of times that I think Texas plays more relaxed and consequently more efficiently when the ‘Horns force the pace by playing full court pressure defense. I'm also not convinced that Texas can beat quality to elite level teams when the game is played entirely in the half court. Texas does not shoot the ball consistently enough from distance; our personnel groupings have hampered our offensive explosiveness; and our inability to score from the line all make winning a half court game difficult. All that said, my first obvious key to this game is to force the tempo. The higher scoring this game is the more I like the Longhorns.
On offensive, Pomeroy's stats show a team that likes to work the ball on offense for a good shot. The Huskers have a high assist ratio and protect the basketball well. They don't shoot the ball exceptionally well from anywhere on the floor or from the line nor do the excel on the offensive glass, so slowing the pace and forcing Texas to play defense for 30 seconds per possession will be their game plan.
The Husker defense has been decent this season. They create a fair numbers of turnovers and do a solid job on the defensive glass. When you aren't worried about getting fast break buckets, you can send all five guys to the defensive glass, and that is exactly what Nebraska does. The Huskers are vulnerable from behind the arc; although, I'm not sure I want to see Texas shooting much from deep.
This is a ‘should win' for Texas and also, sadly, a ‘must win' too. Texas sits at 5-4 in conference play with three tough road games remaining-Missouri, A&M, and Baylor. If we chalk up all three of those as losses, which I'm not quite ready to do by the way, Texas must win their other four to finish with a winning record in conference play. That is a shocking statement to write for a team three weeks removed from the No. 1 ranking in the country. Thankfully three of those four wins can come at home, with the fourth hopefully coming next Saturday in Lubbock.
A few quick stats to make you feel better about the ‘Horns' chances. Texas is 11-3 against Nebraska since the formation of the Big XII. The Longhorns have won seven of their last eight against the Cornhuskers but that one defeat came last year in Lincoln. Texas is 9-2 against Nebraska in the Rick Barnes era, and 10-0 all time against Nebraska in Austin. The Huskers are also only 1-6 in true road games this season.
According to Damion James
We've still got the whole month of February and March to play. This is the worst we're going to play. I know that. This is the worst we're going to play. Once we get going on that high hill and get back up the hill, it's going to be great.
On that note, a few Keys to the Game:
1) Force the Tempo: As mentioned above, the quicker the pace, the more comfortable the game is for the Longhorns and the more uncomfortable it is for the Huskers.
2) Attack the Rim: With Brown at the point, Bradley camped at one wing, and Balbay running baseline and setting screens, driving lanes should be available, ala the second half against Kansas. Texas should not forget about feeding Pittman on the block or James at the elbow, but this Texas offense goes when we put pressure on the defense by attacking the paint. In addition to J'Covan from the top of the key, I'd like to see Bradley be more aggressive to the rim. His mid-range jumper is a thing of beauty when it's on. However, his offensive aggressiveness tends to wane after a couple of misses. If Texas is able to force an up and down game, Bradley and Brown should shine.
3) Defensive Focus: One of the biggest questions coming into this season was how quickly would the freshman get it. As we all know, getting it with Barnes starts with defense. Bradley has been solid but the other three newcomers (Brown, Jordan Hamilton, and Jai Lucas) have looked somewhere between lost and apathetic on defense for most of the year. Brown is starting to get it, and his insertion back into the starting lineup signifies that Barnes either trusts him more on defense or needs him so badly on offense that he's willing to put him on the floor despite his defensive lapses. We'll see this afternoon how much J'Covan can focus on defense.
The emergence of smarter minutes from Hamilton remains a key to March success. Sitting in mid-February and still hoping for that next step is one of the many reasons for Texas failures this season. However, as Damion says, there is still time.
Today against Nebraska, the defensive focus of Texas will be tested significantly. The Huskers are not going to take quick shots and probably won't turn the ball over much either. Texas cannot afford 25 seconds of solid defense before losing intensity with the shot clock winding down.