For a football school like Texas, basketball season doesn’t ever seem to really start until the final snap is played out on the gridiron. And now that the Texas Bowl is behind us, it’s time to focus on hoops, baby.
Texas Longhorns basketball (9-3) has a huge test tonight as the ‘Horns will kick off their Big 12 season by hosting the No. 11 Kansas Jayhawks (10-2) at 8 pm CST.
To learn more about this year’s Jayhawks team, I spoke with Andy Mitts, who is a managing editor at Kansas SB Nation blog Rock Chalk Talk.
Below is our discussion.
Burnt Orange Nation: This is a Kansas team that, though still No. 11 in the nation, is not perceived to be as dominant as usual. In a loaded Big 12, does Bill Self’s team win its 14th straight Big 12 title? Why or why not?
Rock Chalk Talk: Despite the struggles we've seen early in the year, I think this team is still poised to win the title yet again. First, this is by far the most talented overall team, with as many as four guys pushing for serious All Big 12 consideration this year. The main issue they've encountered is depth, with only seven scholarship players in the early rotations. But the addition of Sam Cunliffe and Silvio De Sousa (who won't be available for this game but should start contributing in a couple weeks), and the likely return of Billy Preston should help shore up the depth problems that we have seen. And despite the depth issues, Kansas still is a top-10 defensive squad and a top-20 offensive squad, so adding more weapons and giving some guys some much-needed rest should only serve to make this team even better.
BON: How is this Kansas team different than last year’s team, both for better and worse?
RCT: This year takes last year's front court depth to the extreme, with Udoka Azuibuike the only consistent presence down low. In addition, Bill Self finally seems to have embraced unrestrained three-point shooting from this team. But I think the similarities are much more important than the differences, as last year's four-guard lineup helped Self to get away from his traditional high-low, two big man setup that he has used consistently since he started at Kansas.
BON: How do you see the match-up between Azubuike and Bamba playing out?
RCT: This is the most uncertain part of this match-up, as both of these players have dominated their opponents. A good deal of that is that they have yet to face someone as large and powerful down low as them, and so who wins this matchup will be extremely important. I do think that one of them is going to get into early foul trouble, but I don't think I can be certain which one it is. However, I can say that early foul trouble will be more devastating for Texas, as they don't really have a consistent outside shooting game to carry a foul-depleted front-court, whereas a hot Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Legerald Vick could easily overcome Dok having to sit on the bench.
BON: Who is a playmaker on Kansas that isn’t a household name to the common basketball fan who will make an impact tonight?
RCT: I'm going to have to go with true freshman Marcus Garrett. He doesn't really light up the box score, but he has already shown the valuable ability to serve as a utility guy for this squad, coming in and picking up the slack exactly where it is needed. And the role can change nightly. He has served as a lock-down defender, a rebounder, an outside shooter, and a competent backup PG at various times throughout the year, and he could serve a very important role for this squad tonight.
BON: What’s your prediction for tonight’s game?
RCT: The last time Kansas lost a conference opener was in 1991, so just like the conference title streak, it's hard to imagine that ending until it actually does. I do think that Mo Bamba makes this a tricky matchup, but ultimately I think the Jayhawks win with their outside shooting ability. I'll go Kansas 82, Texas 76.
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Special thanks to Andy for providing their valuable insight on Kansas. You can check my Q&A with Andy over on Rock Chalk Talk.