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Scouting the balanced Lipscomb team standing between Texas and an NIT title

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Led by high-scoring senior guard Garrison Matthews, the Bisons are one of the top mid-major teams in the country.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Semifinal-Lipscomb vs Wichita State Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — On Thursday evening at Madison Square Garden, the Texas Longhorns will attempt to complete a five-game run in the NIT against the Lipscomb Bisons in an attempt to win the program’s second tournament title.

Lipscomb is a balanced and experienced mid-major team that made the NCAA Tournament last season before improving significantly this season.

“You know, there’s a reason that they won 29 games,” head coach Shaka Smart said after beating TCU. “Casey [Alexander] has done a phenomenal job with the team, but [Garrison] Matthews, he can really, really score the basketball. We’re going to have to do a better job on him not letting him get open looks.”

Texas does have experience playing this Lipscomb team, winning 80-57 in Austin early in the 2017-18 season.

The main thing the players remember from that game was Lipscomb forward Eli Pepper dunking on Mo Bamba, earning him the nickname “Dunk Man” from the Longhorns. When Roach was FaceTiming with Bamba on Tuesday, the dunk was a topic of conversation and though Bamba was “speechless” when the topic came up, Roach did give his former teammate credit for recovering to block five shots in that game.

For Texas, there has been some significant roster turnover since then, so it’s hardly the same team. Lipscomb doesn’t play quite the same way, either, Smart said, even though all the same contributors are back.

Still, there are some relevant takeaways from that game.

One of the keys to that victory for the Horns last year was attacking Matthews when he was on defense — the reigning Atlantic Sun Player of the Year picked up two early fouls and didn’t play for much of the first half. As a result, Matthews only saw 22 minutes of action overall and struggled from beyond the arc, hitting one of his five three-point attempts in scoring 17 points. However, he did make it to the free-throw line 10 times and ranks in the top 50 nationally this season in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.

“He’s a dynamic scorer at all three levels,” senior guard Kerwin Roach II said. “He’s athletic, can dunk the ball, gets out and runs. If you under anything with him it’s an automatic green light for him to just shoot the ball. He’s just dangerous all around.”

Matthews will shoot from deep and then continue shooting from deep — he ranks tied for 20th nationally in three-point attempts. To start the game, Roach considers it “very vital” to stop Matthews from getting into a rhythm, but given the extent to which Matthews is a volume shooter, even if he starts out slowly, he’ll keep looking for that shot to get himself going.

Against Wichita State in the semifinals, Matthews wasn’t especially efficient on his way to 34 points, but even when he went cold in the second half, he kept shooting and eventually hit a key three-pointer to break a tie with 1:10 remaining. The Bisons eventually closed the game on a 14-0 run over the final 3:25.

However, Alexander’s team struggled at times early in the second half with Wichita State’s length and athleticism, as the Shockers had five steals and forced 10 turnovers by the Bisons in the second half. As a result, an eight-point lead for Lipscomb early in the half turned into an 11-point Wichita State lead with 8:44 remaining when one of those steals led to a dunk four seconds later.

Taken in whole, the Lipscomb offense stands in stark contrast to the TCU offense — the Horned Frogs, like the Longhorns for much of the season, relied heavily on creating offense with ball screens, while the Bisons make opponents play screens away from the ball. Roach compared Lipscomb’s attack to the motion offense run by Purdue.

“They do a terrific job running offense and moving as a team, a lot of backdoors, a lot of movement, a lot of screen action off the ball,” Smart said.

For Roach as a defender, it’s about staying on high alert, seeing the ball, seeing the man, and being ready to chase players around off-ball screens.

For the guards defending Lipscomb point guard Kenny Cooper, the challenge will be making him a shooter instead of a distributor — he ranks within the top 100 nationally in assist rate and has nearly 25 percent of the team’s total. His shot, however, looked shaky at times against Wichita State.

The forwards, Pepper and Rob Marberry, are also strong distributors and Matthews isn’t too selfish to make the right play, either, so as good as Cooper is at finding his teammates, Lipscomb moves the ball extremely well overall.

As a team, Texas will need to maintain the defensive intensity from the last several games, especially the TCU performance, by far the best this season in terms of limiting points per possession. Combined with an excellent effort against Colorado, the second best of the season, Smart’s team is playing better on that end of the court than it has in any two-game stretch all year.

Considering that defense is primarily about effort, intensity, and attention to detail, it’s fair to wonder why the Horns struggled so much in those areas during conference play.

Asked about the cause of those issues on Wednesday, senior forward Dylan Osetkowski paused before claiming ignorance.

“I’m not even sure, to be honest, what was going on in the Big 12,” Osetkowski said. “I really don’t have much to say about that.”

What’s changed, then?

Coughs. Another pregnant pause, longer this time.

“I think when you play teams that you aren’t familiar with, you kind of have a heightened sense of awareness for what they’re capable of — you don’t know their tendencies, you aren’t sitting on a specific hand or a specific direction that they drive, so I think, collectively, we’ve been locked in on guarding your man, staying in front of your man, if someone gets beat, having your teammate’s back. Just a heightened sense of making defense the reason why we win games.”

Not exactly the most satisfying answer, but perhaps one doesn’t exist. For his part, Smart said he challenged the pride of his players following the disappointments in conference play and believes that some embarrassment on their part has played in a role during the NIT run.

The responses from Osetkowski and Smart illustrate the extent to which coaching is often an exercise in psychoanalysis.

“It’s not like we don’t have that conversation going into Oklahoma State on the road, but obviously, we were as flat as you can be to start that game,” Smart said. “So, it’s on me. I have to do a better job having that conversation, but in the right way.”

In the NIT, at least, those conversations have produced better results.

Offensively, the plan for Roach is to once again attack Matthews defensively — in Roach’s previous game against Lipscomb, he scored 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting with zero three-point attempts in a slashing role off the ball. Roach made multiple excellent cuts to the rim on Tuesday, as well, so the offensive plan for him may look a lot like it did against TCU, when Roach ran off of staggered screens to catch the ball on the move and get downhill towards the rim with aggression if he wasn’t taking advantage of defenders watching the ball.

As Jeff Haley mentioned in his own game preview, Lipscomb may decide to pack the paint against Texas, the same strategy that South Dakota State and many other opponents employed at various points throughout the season. In the NIT opener, the Longhorns entered the game ready and willing to shoot from outside, eventually attempting 39 three-point shots and making nearly 40 percent.

The Bisons don’t shoot as well as the Jackrabbits from distance, so shooting that often from beyond the arc may not be necessary, but taking only 15 three-point attempts, as the Longhorns did against the Horned Frogs, may not be feasible given the likely defensive strategy by Alexander’s team. Making only 33.3 percent of those attempts, as Texas did against TCU, may not be enough to win, either.

In all, Lipscomb narrowly edges TCU as the best team Texas has played in the NIT and sits inside the top 40 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric, making the Bisons a worthy and formidable opponent.

So if Texas manages to win the program’s second NIT title on Thursday at 6 p.m. Central on ESPN, it will be a well-deserved victory.