Two weeks after nearly suffering a major upset at home to the McNeese State Cowboys, the Texas Longhorns return to the Erwin Center on Saturday to face off against the Central Michigan Chippewas, one of the nation’s most experienced teams.
After six days off following last Sunday’s win against Texas A&M in Fort Worth, head coach Shaka Smart’s team has focused on finishing finals while developing players individually, then carrying that growth over into games.
“Really important time for us to continue to work on growth as a basketball team,” Smart said on Thursday. “Growth individually, and then when game time comes, obviously with carryover. That’s kind of been the theme with our guys — growth, carryover, growth, carryover. Where we are now, nine games into the year, is obviously still a work in progress.”
Indeed, the near loss against the Cowboys illustrated just how much room for improvements these Longhorns still have, particularly with young players like freshmen Kai Jones, Will Baker, and Donovan Williams.
Even some of the more experienced players still have things to prove. Can junior guard Jase Febres continue to build his confidence and carryover his shooting from practice to games after breaking out of his slump? Can sophomore guard Courtney Ramey score more consistently after up-and-down performances in that area throughout the early part of the season? Can junior forward Jericho Sims remain aggressive and continue building on the most consistent stretch of his own career?
“I’ve seen a lot of growth in our guys, I’ve seen a lot of individual growth, guys really step forward at being able to take some of the things that we ask them to do and apply them on the court, but there’s still a ton of room for us to improve and we’re going to have to improve to be the team we want to be,” Smart said.
Central Michigan isn’t as poor as McNeese State was defensively entering the game against Texas, but the Chippewas are another team defined by a solid offense, albeit one that plays at a fast pace. Led by head coach Keno Davis, Saturday’s visitors also protect the ball and get to the free-throw line consistently. Those are necessary components for a team that doesn’t shoot particularly well inside or outside the three-point line.
A high-scoring team that averages 90 points per game, six players average nine or more points, led by senior guard Kevin McKay, a 6’5, 228-pounder who averages 15.7 points per game and will provide some matchup problems for the Longhorns. McKay is one of the most efficient players nationally, shooting over 70 percent from inside the arc and getting to the free-throw line, where he shoots over 80 percent. As a result, he ranks No. 31 in the country in offensive rating.
Senior guard Dallas Morgan is the team’s leading threat from outside in volume and percentage with 18 makes on 51 attempts. Overall, however, Central Michigan presents a unique threat because it’s a team that can shoot from all positions, which will challenge a defense built philosophically around limiting three-point attempts and makes.
Defensively, the story is somewhat similar to the offensive profile — while Central Michigan struggles to keep opponents from scoring consistently, the Chippewas avoid sending opponents to the free-throw line, so the Longhorns will have to be extremely aggressive to reverse the emerging trend of taking an extraordinarily low number of foul shots.
The game tips off at 1 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network. KenPom.com gives Texas a 92-percent chance of winning this game, with a projected score of 79-64.