Texas Longhorns (7-3) at Stanford Cardinal (5-3)
Saturday, December 19, 2015 | 10:30 pm CT | TV: ESPN2
After a successful five-game home stand that included narrow victories over a dangerous UT-Arlington squad and a Final Four contender in UNC, Texas will hit the road to take on Stanford on Saturday night. Hoops fans may remember last year's match up with the Cardinal in Austin, when the Longhorns -- playing without injured PG Isaiah Taylor -- were picked off on their home floor by the red hot shooting of seniors Anthony Brown and Chasson Randle, who combined for 47 of the team's 74 points, including 7 of 12 from three-point range.
A collapse down the back stretch of the schedule last year bumped the Cardinal off the NCAA Tournament bubble into the NIT, but they made the most of it, winning five straight games to win the tournament. But after losing both Brown and Randle to graduation, Stanford hasn't been able to build off that momentum. The Cardinal are 5-3 overall so far, but are just 1-3 record against KenPom Top 100 teams, managing a neutral-floor win over No. 88 Arkansas but suffering double-digit losses to No. 19 SMU, No. 42 St. Mary's, and No. 4 Villanova in succession.
Texas represents Stanford's last shot at a Top 50 non-con win, and the Pac 12, which looks like a 2- or 3-bid league at this point, won't provide much resume help. Winning the NIT is nice and all, but that's not the tournament you want to be playing in and -- if we're being honest -- it's kind of baffling that Cardinal head coach Johnny Dawkins has even made it to year eight. Consider the fact that Texas just fired its most successful coach ever after he led the Horns to the NCAA Tournament for a 16th time in his 17 seasons, and the fact that in seven seasons as the head coach at Stanford, Dawkins has led the Cardinal to the Big Dance exactly one time. And that Stanford made the NCAA Tournament in 13 of the 14 seasons prior to Dawkins' arrival. Maybe Dawkins has photos of Stanford AD Bernard Muir with a dead hooker in his bed or something, but otherwise he probably ought to get his team into the Tourney if he wants to keep his job.
On the bright side for Dawkins, this Stanford roster is good enough to earn a Tourney bid, the loss of Brown and Randle to graduation notwithstanding. Although their play hasn't consistently reflected it yet this season, in terms of quality depth, Stanford's top eight in the rotation have some promise. The Cardinal roster is a reasonably experienced one, and -- importantly -- one with enough size to play with Texas. In the backcourt, 6-4 senior Christian Sanders starts at the point, flanked by 6-1 junior Marcus Allen and 6-9 senior swingman Rosco Allen, while the frontcourt is anchored by sophomores Travis Reid (6-8, 245) and Michael Humphrey (6-9, 220), a pair of quietly effective forwards who contribute value across the box score.
Stanford's rotation goes nine deep, with 6-5 sophomore Dorian Pickens providing a three-point threat off the bench and 6-1 junior Malcolm Allen offering a handful of minutes of relief at the point. For the Cardinal are to reach their potential this season, however, they'll need continued improvement from emerging freshmen contributors Marcus Sheffield, a good athlete who can get to the rim and finish or draw fouls, and Cam Walker, a 6-7 forward with a developed skill set who's still adjusting tot he size and speed of the college game.
Both teams enter this contest on encouraging win streaks, and while the Longhorns are on the road, this is a true road match up that they can win if they're on point. Here's what I'll be watching for on Saturday night:
1. Can Javan Felix be effective against Stanford's perimeter players? Texas has a bit of a size advantage on the interior, but Stanford's length on the perimeter could prove to be a very tough match up for the Longhorns' sharpshooting Ewok. Felix should be okay when he's tasked with guarding the 6-1 Marcus Allen, but Shaka Smart may have to match substitutes when the Cardinal bring Dorian Pickens in off the bench for Allen. When that happens, Stanford's backcourt will be comprised of 6-4 point Christian Sanders, the 6-5 Pickens, and 6-9 Rosco Allen -- a trio of players who excel at putting it on the deck and drawing whistles. That's a tough defensive assignment for Felix.
That challenge may well extend to the other end of the floor, as well. If the tempo of this game plays at the deliberate pace favored by Stanford, Texas won't have the same open court opportunities that North Carolina offered and will be forced to succeed operating in the halfcourt. That won't be easy against Stanford's l-o-n-g perimeter players, who play an aggressive, disruptive style of defense that focuses on ball denial and tight man guarding that extends to 25 feet. That's the type of defense where we've seen Felix struggle in the past, and while Felix has been terrific through the first 10 games of the season, it will be interesting to see how he responds to the challenge on Saturday night, and how Smart manages his minutes if he's ineffective.
2. Who steps up for Texas on the perimeter? Stanford isn't a great shooting or offensive rebounding team, but they have been thoroughly exceptional in one regard: getting to the free throw line. Through 8 games the Cardinal have been ridiculously effective at earning free throw attempts. They don't even shoot them very well (just 65% on the year so far), but the sheer volume of attempts is significant enough that Stanford is scoring 26% of its points from the charity stripe. Having said that, let's imagine that Felix finds himself neutralized by Stanford's length and Isaiah Taylor winds up limited by foul trouble for parts of the game. Maybe it won't be much of an issue and we'll see Taylor and Felix play 30-35 minutes of effective basketball, but in the scenario where the contributions from those two are limited, who steps up for Texas on the perimeter?
We know both Kerwin Roach and Demarcus Holland are viable candidates for minutes with their size and defense, but neither player has gotten much going on the offensive end yet this year. Eric Davis is probably the most likely candidate to pick up the slack, and y'all know how I feel about him... I won't blink if he drops 25 and delivers an MVP performance.
He is, however, a freshman, and plays in the mortal division (i.e. he's not Kevin Durant), so neither would it be shocking to see him score 5 points on 2-12 shooting. If Texas' three starters have a quiet night, and Roach/Holland continue to be one-sided assets, where's the perimeter scoring going to come from? This may be the game where we see how much value a healthy Kendal Yancy is ready to contribute as a sophomore (he's been great in limited action, mostly against secondary competition). We may also get to see how much Shaka Smart trusts Tevin Mack at this stage in his freshman season. And call it a hunch, but something tells me Mack makes some important contributions on Saturday. We may need him to.
3. Can Texas capitalize on its frontcourt advantages? Just as the Cardinal backcourt presents some challenges for Texas, the Longhorns deeper, bigger, more experienced frontcourt has similar potential to provide a meaningful advantage. Given a choice between the two, I'd prefer the backcourt advantage, if only because collegiate players -- even the ones on the very best teams -- really struggle to execute interior offense with real consistency.
With that said, Cam Ridley is challenging that thesis in his senior year, having developed into a ruthlessly efficient force in the paint. Part of it is the way Cam himself is playing, but part of it owes to improved offensive sets in Shaka Smart's offense, which I have been very impressed with as we've seen it develop over the first 10 games of the year. Ridley can continue his powerful play against Stanford's forwards, but the make-or-break factor may well be on the perimeter, involving the match ups we just discussed. If Stanford's perimeter defense succeeds in disrupting Texas' ability to execute its halfcourt sets, we're going to wind up with a lot of dribbling, one-on-one offense and contested jumpers. That's a bad recipe in any circumstance, but doubly so on the road. I'll be watching carefully to see how successful Texas is in using Stanford's aggression against itself by drawing whistles and getting to the line. If we succeed in that objective, I like our chances to win.
Prediction: I'm genuinely torn on this one. My head likes the Longhorns in this one, and I can see pretty clearly what the path to victory looks like for us -- and won't be surprised if we play sharp and do what needs to be done. With that being said... my gut is much less confident about that proposition. I'm finding it hard not to give in to the skeptical take, which sees Stanford's perimeter length, the team's recent improvement, and home court providing an ultimately decisive advantage.
But my head won't quite allow it. My head sees a Texas team with superior personnel, more depth, better coaching, and encouraging momentum. We haven't broken through away from the Erwin Center yet this year, but that changes on Saturday night. Texas 73 Stanford 67