For the young Texas Longhorns, it has been an unexpectedly bumpy ride through the non-conference season. Picked to finish third in the Big 12 by its coaches, Shaka Smart’s team now looks ahead to a conference schedule short on easy wins.
But for now, conference play is still a little more than a week away. Texas has a chance to continue to improve before the really tough games get here. Tonight is one of those chances, with a solid Alabama-Birmingham squad coming to town to face the Longhorns.
The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT, and airs on the Longhorn Network.
The UAB Blazers are 6-5 so far this season, with two wins coming on a neutral court against George Washington and on the road against Stephen F. Austin, and losses primarily coming at the hands of major conference and powerhouse mid-major opponents. In the context of the rest of Texas’ non-conference schedule UAB is not as good as UT-Arlington (a team that won this season in Austin), but better better than Long Beach State and substantially better than Eastern Washington and UL-Monroe. It is not a game where the Longhorns can expect to just show up and win.
UAB is led by first-year head coach Rob Ehsan, who took over when his former boss Jerod Haase (a college teammate of both Jason Kidd and Paul Pierce before getting into coaching) left for the head job at Stanford. Ehsan’s team has experience and size.
Junior front-court players Chris Cokley and and William Lee form a formidable pair in the paint. Cokley and Lee lead the Blazers in scoring and rebounding, and Lee is one of the best rim protectors in the nation. Lee has blocked more than one out of every 10 two-point attempts while on the floor, and with 25 of his 34 total blocked shots on the season coming at the rim, he is a major reason that opponents are converting on fewer than half of their shots near the basket in half-court settings.
Meanwhile, both big guys cannot be ignored on the offensive end of the floor. Cokely is a tough scorer inside and is extremely active on the offensive boards. Lee is arguably a more difficult cover, as he is adept at scoring inside but is also a dangerous catch-and-shoot man from the perimeter who has connected on 38 percent of his 172 career three-point attempts. (A rim-protector with three point range sounds like the sort of player who may have a solid professional career ahead of him.) Jarrett Allen, Shaq Cleare, Tevin Mack, and James Banks are going to have their hands full with these two, who are ably backed up by 6’9 senior Tosin Mehinti.
UAB has experienced guards on the wings, with seniors Dirk Williams and Hakeem Baxter providing some scoring. Williams is the more dynamic of the two, and while he is off to a slow start this season he is a capable scorer both shooting from the perimeter and driving to the hoop. Williams is particularly strong in transition.
The weak spot for the Blazers has been at point guard, where sophomore Deion Lavender has struggled with turnovers so far this season, while 6’4 senior Tyler Madison has played reasonably well as a back up. Before transferring to UAB, Lavender played off the ball as a freshman at Southern Illinois, where he showed some ability as a shooter from the perimeter. This season he has been making the difficult transition to serving as the primary ball-handler on offense; perhaps Lavender and Texas guard Kerwin Roach can trade notes after the game on how they are coping with these challenges.
I will be watching closely to see how the Texas big men deal with UAB’s versatile front court, and to see if the Longhorn perimeter defense can harass Lavender into turnovers. I am concerned that the Texas offense will struggle to score against an opponent with a game changing rim-protector; tonight would be a very good night to hit a few extra threes.