The Texas Longhorns face their first power conference opponent — and an old and almost forgotten rival — in the Arkansas Razorbacks on Friday in El Paso. The game takes place at Fort Bliss as the annual installment of the Armed Forces Classic, which is thankfully not being played in an non-air conditioned gym in Japan... because what could possibly go wrong with that.
(What went wrong was the court became so slippery that the officials ended the game at halftime. This was a fate that was similar to several of the games that ESPN attempted to stage on the deck of aircraft carriers. These events scheduled around Veterans Day are a nice idea, and thankfully are now much better executed.)
The Texas team arrived early at Fort Bliss for a variety of events:
Heard from Brigadier General Scott Naumann about selflessness and the importance of teammates. Valuable lesson for our guys going into game 2. #hookem pic.twitter.com/WkndJN5irf— Shaka Smart (@HookEmSmart) November 9, 2018
Great spending time with some of the brave men and women who keep our country safe every day #ArmedForcesClassic #hookem pic.twitter.com/1N2L4xi2y5— Texas Basketball (@TexasMBB) November 8, 2018
The @TexasMBB team running some basketball drills during a youth clinic for #MilitaryFamilies on #FortBliss. #ArmedForcesClassic pic.twitter.com/YPMgJlfWH5— DOD Outreach (@DoDOutreach) November 9, 2018
Playing Arkansas tonight (a team I will get to in a few paragraphs) will more than double our understanding of this iteration of Texas basketball.
With only one game so far, Longhorns fans (myself included) have had to work hard to avoid the trap of over-interpreting single game results. In many cases, having a little information is more harmful to understanding than having no information, and I believe the Eastern Illinois game serves as an example of this. That is unless Jericho Sims and Dylan Osetkowski combining to turn the ball over seven times in a single game is going to become a regular occurrence.
Still, let’s take a moment to reflect upon that game. I think it is useful to break it down into three segments. For roughly the first 15 minutes of the game, the Horns played tight on offense and passed up open shots, and were a bit too careless with the ball.
In the second 15-minute segment, the Longhorns more or less ran the Panthers off the floor. The team played fast and aggressive, and hit some shots. One thing that was clearly demonstrated in the Eastern Illinois game was that Texas can create an open shot pretty much any time it wants against a team like the Panthers. Once the Longhorns stopped passing up those shots, and started taking (and making) them, things clicked pretty well.
In the final ten minutes of the game, Texas experimented with some different lineups, worked Andrew Jones into the action, and lost some of its focus. The net result was a 20-point lead turned to a 12-point victory, but the game was never really at risk.
As a team, the Texas offense (which is greatly simplified relative to what we watched last season) looked reasonably crisp. However, some of the individual players on the team looked a little sloppy with the ball. I like the idea — play fast, ball screen multiple times a possession, and allow players to be aggressive and attack — but we shall see how the execution of it plays out over the course of the season.
Which brings us to tonight’s game, which will be the second Texas contest of the season, and the first for Arkansas. Head coach Mike Anderson’s team won 23 games last year with a group where four of the top five players were seniors, and eight of the top 10 players in terms of minutes played are no longer on the roster. That makes this group a little hard to get a read on, much like Eastern Illinois
One player that Arkansas does return is 6’11 sophomore Daniel Gafford. He is good — likely one of the best interior players that the Longhorns will face during the season. He was a skinny (and effective) freshman last year who has added some muscle mass over the summer, and will impact the game on both ends of the floor. Gafford protects the rim exceptionally well, controls the glass, and should be a focal point for the Razorback offense. The Texas front court will have all that it can handle.
Two other returning players who saw the floor last season to varying degrees are 6’6 junior Adrio Bailey and 6’8 sophomore Gabe Osabuohien. Anderson has filled out the roster with two transfer guards — Jalen Harris (New Mexico) and Mason Jones (JUCO, Connors State College) — and an eight-man freshman class.
Stylistically, Anderson’s teams are known for pressing and playing up tempo. Texas fans are familiar with this style from Anderson’s days in the Big 12 as the head man at Missouri. It is the sort of basketball that Anderson learned to coach under his mentor Nolan Richardson — oh yes, we couldn’t make it all the way through an Arkansas preview without mentioning that name.
Texas also aims to play fast, so this could be a high possession game. Senior guard Kerwin Roach II will also be back in the Texas rotation tonight after serving his suspension for an offseason violation of team rules.
The game tips off at 6 p.m. Central and airs on ESPN.