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Texas Basketball: Longhorns Take On The Champs

Texas takes aim at Kansas in Austin on Big Monday.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

#1 Kansas Jayhawks (25-4, 13-3)  at #22 Texas Longhorns (19-10, 10-6)

Monday, February 29, 2016 @ 8:00 pm CT | Television: ESPN

I wrote in my Oklahoma preview about the stakes in play for Texas and why I expected Shaka Smart's squad to be dialed in and hungry for a win.  Buddy Hield made us wait for it, single-handedly lighting up the Longhorns to put his Sooners up 7 with 7:30 to play, but neither the team nor the crowd gave up and 22 points later, Texas was about to celebrate a runaway win over their rivals.

Les Stakes

One down, two to go, and once again, Texas has plenty to play for: a #2 seed in the Big 12 Tourney, a fifth win for the season over a Top-10 ranked team, another big boost in the climb up the S-curve, and additional momentum and confidence for the most important month of the season.

Trailing by three games in the standings with two left to play, a shot at the Big 12 championship isn't among the potential prizes for Texas this year.  With the Longhorns win over OU, coupled with KU's win over Texas Tech, the Jayhawks wrapped up at least a share of the Big 12 title for a mind-boggling 12th consecutive season. More on that in a moment, but with the Jayhawks needing just a win or any WVU loss to win it outright, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether Kansas will be as motivated for a win as Texas will be.

Two years ago, Texas popped Kansas in the mouth early, rode a frenzied crowd to a 15-point lead by halftime, and cruised to a double-digit win while Bill Self called freshman Isaiah Taylor the best player on the floor.  I'm expecting another motivated, sell out crowd at the Drum tonight, and while we'll never enjoy the kind of home court advantage that the Jayhawks get playing at Phog, if Kansas is content to seal the outright title on their own home court on Saturday, or for any reason isn't fully motivated to fight for a road win, the stars will be aligned for Texas to pull an upset.

Checking In With Las Vegas

Based on my own prediction, and those I picked up from the KU side from chatting with misterbrain (see our podcast chat below) and from reading fetch's preview at Rock Chalk Talk, I got the sense that there was something of a consensus opinion favoring Texas slightly in tonight's match up, primarily for the reasons we just discussed. Bettors apparently see it a little differently, however, as the opening line in Las Vegas favored KU by 1 point, and that spread has swelled to 3 points in the time since.

One way to reconcile the difference is to think of the Las Vegas line as reflecting a pure team evaluation, while the projections from us bloggers are reflective of a more nuanced, contextual evaluation.  Kansas by 3 seems a pretty reasonable spread based on a pure evaluation of the two teams, while a more nuanced and contextual analysis might conclude that Texas looks like the better bet tonight.  This is a purely speculative exercise, but it's an interesting way to think about how to evaluate a match up prior to tip.

A few Vegas-related stats on tonight's match up:

  • Texas is 5-1 against-the-spread (ATS) over its last six games, as well as 5-1 ATS in their last six Big Monday contests.
  • Kansas has covered the spread in each of its past four road games and is 7-1 ATS across their last 8 games following a straight up (SU) win.
  • Head-to-head in this series, the underdog is 4-1 ATS across the last five games and the teams have hit the under in 7 of the past 9.

Interesting: in the time it took me to write this, the line in Vegas is now up to KU -4. If you're the betting type, Texas getting 4 points at home seems like a terrific value bet right now.

Jayhawk Talk

About that Big 12 Championship streak, I got a chance to spend 20 minutes talking Big 12 hoops with misterbrain from Rock Chalk Talk.  Listen below as we talk about the Shaka Smart hire, The Streak, Wayne Selden's development, and match ups to pay attention to for tonight's game.

Keys to the Game & Prediction

Alright, it'll be game time shortly, so let's get this wrapped up.  How do you see tonight's game playing out?  Are you with me and the RCT guys in liking UT's chances?  Or do you see Kansas' recent success against UT continuing tonight?  Here's what I'll be looking for:

1.  Know your High-Low. I love Bill Self's High-Low offense.  It's a simpler, more structured variant on the motion offense, using a high post entry and a series of staggered screens to apply constant pressure on the defense.  Each time a Texas defender doesn't close out hard on his man floating out to the three point line following a down screen, Devonte' Graham, or Frank Mason, or Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk gets to shoot a three. Each time a Texas defender overplays a screener to the high side, Perry Ellis fires a pass to a KU guard for a backdoor lay up.  There are a dozen or so components like those, and when a Self team gets into a groove running that thing, it's treacherous to defend, because it's always moving and resetting, and at each stage has dual options, allowing KU to exploit whatever choice you make.  Defending Self's High-Low offense requires discipline and -- above all else -- a lot of effort.  You've got to chase the Jayhawk you're assigned to defend all around the court, and if you take a second off, you're beat. With all that said, there's a reason Self bragged he was able to install it at Tulsa just four days before the start of the season: it's not that complicated, and in theory we should be just as confident in executing our defensive response to KU's motion offense.  Still, this is worth flagging as a crucial element to a Texas victory.

2.  Control the defensive glass. When the Jayhawks are getting second looks off of misses, they become nearly impossible to beat.  I know that this is an element of the contest Shaka Smart wants and knows he needs to win, so it boils down to effort and execution.

3.  Keep Devonte' Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in check. Perry Ellis and Frank Mason are ballers. They're going to ball. You know that, I know that, Bevo knows that, everyone knows it.  That's okay, provided we keep them from dropping 30 apiece on us and -- crucially -- we aren't also getting popped for 15-20 points apiece by Graham and Mykhaliluk.  Much more than "shutting down" Ellis and Mason, which is an unrealistic (and, frankly, pretty stoopid) objective, I'm concerned about losing track of these other two ninjas, because when the two of them are filling up the scoreboard, Kansas becomes an offensive juggernaut.  That spells doom for a Ridley-less Longhorns team that isn't well-suited to winning high scoring shootouts.

3.  Establish alpha status... but stay loose. Anyone who was at the Drum in 2014 when KU came to town remembers what a satisfying ass kicking that was.  In particular, it was supremely satisfying to watch the way we came out guns blazing, asserting ourselves as the stronger, more physical, and hungrier team.  Funny thing happened: Kansas took a half step back and out of the way after getting poppe in the mouth.  They wanted no part of our brawl, and we had them on the bus by halftime, thinking about their flight home.  I've loved the way Shaka has built up these guys, and I've really enjoyed watching him instill confidence in these kids, but he also has an edge that he wants to see his players compete with, and the end result is a group of guys who know how to play hard, play with swagger, but remain loose.  I'm hoping to see that at its best tonight: we've prepared well, we will be hungry, and hopefully we will take the game to Kansas, rather than let it happen to us.  KU is used to being the team that has its way, and they succeed more often than not.  But this ain't the Phog, and I want to see us playing hard and with an edge, while remaining loose.  Playing instead of thinking.

4.  20-25 minutes for Ibeh. Prince is the ultimate secret weapon for defending Self's High-Low offense precisely because of his inhuman athleticism for his size.  He's able to cover so much ground, so quickly, that he winds up a one-man wrecker.  The rangy senior had 7 blocks in the first meeting, and though we don't necessarily need him to stuff a half dozen shots tonight, we do need him out there for 20-25 minutes, for all the usual reasons.

Prediction: I can woof about taking it to KU all day long, but they're the ones scooping up their 12th straight chip right now, so any predictions that it'll be easy and the Jayhawks will just fold is little more than hopeful wishcasting.  Realistically, as I said above, my biggest concern is playing smart, aware, disciplined, high-effort defense against Self's motion offense, taking care not to lose the Jayhawks' two ninja assassins in Graham and Mykhailiuk when they float out to the three point line.  They don't need much room to fire, and both can take it to the cup with authority, but that's why Ibeh is listed there at #4.  He's the eraser in the paint, but he needs his teammates to do their part in monitoring the perimeter defenses.  No soft close outs.  Javan, I'm looking at you.  This one's tough to call for all the reasons discussed, but as I said on the podcast with RCT, a lot of the contextual factors seem to set up nicely in favor of the Longhorns.  I love our chances if we get grooving early, and I'll be watching for signs of Kansas looking less than fully competitive.  If they don't feel like putting up the fight we're bringing, we'll get what we want, same as they do at the Phog.  This Texas team is peaking at the right time, and it shows on Big Monday, 72-65.