It has been an odd start to the season for Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns. The Longhorns played somewhat uninspired basketball in wins over Eastern Illinois and Louisiana Monroe, won a closer than expected game against a better than expected Arkansas, and blew the doors of The Citadel.
This mixed showing was followed by a great game in a win over North Carolina, a great first half in a loss against Michigan State, and a total catastrophe in a loss at home against Radford.
I think it is fair to say that outside of three halves in Las Vegas, the Texas Longhorns have started the season off falling far short of their potential. And as the calendar turns to December, Texas has a short amount of time to get right and prevent the season from going completely sideways against a tough slate of games coming before the Christmas break. Each of thenext four opponents are more than capable of beating Texas, and in some cases capable of running them off the floor. So it is time for Texas to get its act together.
If one wishes to seek out reasons for optimism, then there are still a few to find. November struggles for Smart’s teams at Texas have not been unusual, and they haven’t always meant that the season would end in disaster, either. For whatever reason, Smart’s teams at Texas have been slow to find their rhythm. We can reasonably expect some improvement. Additionally, I remain convinced that this team has too much talent to end up being awful; it is quite possible that the Radford game will be the low point of the season. Texas can go on a run over the next few games and we will quickly forget it.
Still, I have my concerns. Texas to date is not getting much on the offensive end of the floor out of Matt Coleman, and Eli Mitrou-Long has been inconsistent at best. This means 50 of Texas’ available minutes are going to guards who haven’t been very efficient so far this season.
If these trends continue, it is hard to see things improving. Coleman, in particular, must be more productive for Texas to have the sort of season it wants to have. Through the first portion of the season, Coleman has taken too many jump shots, with only 8 of his 64 shot attempts coming at the rim. And by my numbers 5 of those 8 shots at the rim have come early in possessions, meaning that once the defense settles in Coleman typically settles for a jumper.
At his best, Matt Coleman is a smart lead guard who makes the right play and attacks the rim and gets to the free throw line. But right now Coleman is functioning more as a spot up shooter, and this isn’t where he is likely to thrive.
Texas’ first chance to show us more comes tonight at home against VCU. The Rams, coached by former Smart assistant Mike Rhoades, are 6-2. The losses include an overtime defeat by a good St. John’s team, and a road loss at Old Dominion. The wins include a victory over Temple, and a weekend blowout of Iona.
VCU looks about like what you would expect. The Rams are very good defensively, are athletic, and typically play 11 guys. They have struggled with shooting and with turnovers.
With so many players seeing minutes, it can be a little hard to anticipate just who will have the most impact. The main guys so far have been junior De’Riante Jenkins (who has struggled shooting so far this year, but we all know can shoot), 6’6 forward Issac Vann (the classic VCU undersized stretch four), and point guard Marcus Evans (a Rice transfer who followed Coach Rhoades when he moved to VCU).
I will be curious how Rhoades chooses to defend Texas. VCU’s typical style of defense is to pressure the passing lanes, which tends to open up driving lanes of the sort that Texas has been able to exploit this year, such as in the game against North Carolina. Where the Longhorns have struggled is when opponents have put defenders in the gaps to make penetration more difficult, either by playing zone or using a more tightly packed in man to man defense.
If Rhoades does throw some zone at the Longhorns, Texas is either going to have to find a way to crack into the interior, or get some perimeter shots to fall.
The game tips in Austin at 7 p.m. Central, and airs on ESPNU. KenPom.com gives Texas an 83-percent win probability.