MERCER BEARS (0-0) at TEXAS LONGHORNS (0-0)
Friday, November 8, 2013 | 7:00 pm CT | Longhorn Network
I realize that many Texas fans remain more or less exclusively in football mode until the season ends, but for those of us hoops junkies who love games on the hardwood as much as the gridiron, tonight's season opener is cause for excitement.
Jeff and I began previewing the team this week with a review of the past year in Texas hoops, a look at Javan Felix,the importance of Texas' big men, and the tenuous hold Rick Barnes has on his job. I'll have more on the players this year's team, but I generally save my first personnel report until after the first game of the season, after I've had a chance to make in-the-gym evaluations of the squad. Look for a game recap and instant analysis after I get home from the Erwin Center tonight, and a more in depth player-by-player report in the first edition of this year's Texas Basketball Report, which will run on Mondays.
As for tonight's game, if you haven't read Jeff's preview on Mercer, you probably ought to before settling in to watch this one. If you're expecting Texas to roll an overmatched cupcake, recalibrate those expectations. Mercer represents a strong opening game test, sporting a squad with a lot more experience, better shooters, the size to match Texas on the interior, and a stifling defense that does a terrific job collapsing the paint and defending the rim.
A few quick keys to the game for Texas:
1. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Mercer will slow this game down and limit the number of possessions for each team, and where the Bears have experienced guards who have proven they can protect the basketball, Texas will be relying on freshmen and sophomores who are either unproven or struggled with turnovers last year. Isaiah Taylor needs to be a catalyst for this offense, but his effectiveness must include efficiency in the absence of turnovers. If UT is giving away 20% of its possessions in this one, you can go ahead and put this one in the 'Loss' column right now.
2. Let loose and run. I'm all for working an inside-out halfcourt offense when the defense is playing in such a way that it makes sense, but let's talk about the other 97% of the game. I don't know how else to say this: Rick has to let this team run, gun, and have some f*cking fun. It fits the games of Taylor and Croaker, opens up the floor, and highlights the strengths of what should be a great running team. Lammert, Holmes, and Ibeh can all run the floor, and our freshmen guards need to play loose and instinctively. Every possession we spend dribbling the ball for 25 seconds while trying to run half court sets is a possession highly likely to end in a missed shot or turnover, and a potential fast break opportunity for Mercer. We can live with mistakes where the kids are relaxed and trying to make plays. Having them struggle because they're out there thinking and hesitating in the halfcourt will be much worse, both for tonight and the long-term.
3. Find some shooters. It's a game scored by hoisting a ball through a basket: you need shooters who can accomplish said task. Last year, Texas... uh, struggled... in that regard, connecting on a pitiful 30% of their three-point attempts and just 46% on shots inside the arc. It wasn't that Texas couldn't get any open looks; the team missed gobs of quality, wide-open shots. So let's just state the obvious: a couple guys on this team need to step up and prove themselves to be shooters. I'm not particularly confident Demarcus Holland is going to be an asset in that regard, and Isaiah Taylor has a solid shot but is much more a facilitator than a shooter. That leaves Javan Felix (25% 3PFGs last year) and three freshmen -- Demarcus Croaker, Kendal Yancy, Martez Walker. Yancy and Croaker are solid shooters, but Walker looks like he has the best stroke of the bunch. And then there's Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert, both of whom can shoot the ball, but need to improve their outside shot selection to be effective. It would sure be nice to have Papi back, but... here we are, and if this season has any chance of going anywhere, it'll involve a couple guys providing Texas with the outside shooting that was missing so much of last year.
PREDICTION: I'm looking for Texas to do a solid job on defense and clearing the defensive glass, and hopeful that we'll get quick outlets to Taylor to look for some easier buckets and try to make Mercer run a bit. If we're successfully doing that, I'm optimistic this young Longhorns squad can open the season with a 'W'. I'm worried, however, that we're going to get bogged down in a grinding halfcourt game, struggle with turnovers with fouls, and play the kind of game Mercer wants. And which they will win.
This is a young, incomplete team with a lot of question marks and a lot to learn across what could be a very long and difficult season, but there's upside in this bunch and opening night is for optimism. I'll expect the better-case scenario for this Texas squad until what we see on the court tells a different story. TEXAS 64 MERCER 62