It’s not exactly paradise, but the 2020 Maui Invitational is taking place in Asheville, N.C. and the No. 19 Texas Longhorns are set to face off against the Davidson Wildcats in the opening game on Monday at 11 a.m. Central on ESPN2.
Texas will also play games on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Tuesday’s opponent either Indiana or Providence, a stretch of play that will test the team’s conditioning and provide some early-season information about the group’s ultimate upside.
Led by Bob McKillop, who is now in his 32nd season leading the Wildcats, Davidson only lost one starter from last season’s 16-14 team. Senior guard Kellan Grady led the team in scoring last season at 17.2 points per game, but may need to take on a larger playmaking role in 2020-21 with the departure of Jon Axel Gudmundsson, who led the team in assists per game and was also a high-volume shooter from beyond the arc.
“It’s going to be a real challenge,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said on Sunday. “Davidson is very, very good at what they do — they’ve been doing it for a long time. And so for our guys, it’s about communicating, playing in a stance, and continuing to fly around.”
The Longhorns should benefit from the expected return of redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones. After missing the season opener against UTRGV due to a cough before the game, Jones has tested negative in all his tests since Wednesday, so he should be able to play against Davidson. Smart said that everyone else on the team has also tested negative and should be available.
Jones averaged 11.5 points per game last season while hitting 38.3 percent of his three-point attempts and has a chance to improve in 2020-21 — he told the media that he feels more explosive after offseason hip surgery and gained about 10 pounds of muscle.
Much of Smart’s focus is on an area where the entire team needs to improve after allowing 15 offensive rebounds against UTRGV.
“We had a good rebounding advantage the other day, but we gave up too many offensive rebounds, so that’s an area where we need to be better,” Smart said. “It’s something that we’ve worked on throughout the preseason, but it’s about carrying it over, and Davidson does a nice job with physicality, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re aggressive on the glass.”
If the frontcourt can stay out of foul trouble that should pay dividends, as senior forward Jericho Sims only played 19 minutes in the season opener and finished with four fouls. So did sophomore forward Kai Jones, who played 23 minutes. Freshman forward Greg Brown III committed three fouls in 24 minutes. Together, those players dominated the defensive glass when they were in the game with 24 combined rebounds on UTRGV misses. Sims secured eight defensive rebounds in his limited playing time for a defensive rebounding rate of 28.6 percent.
Smart is also continuing to emphasize playing quickly on offense by getting out in transition, as well as improving defensive effectiveness when opponents run.
“We got out in transition a good amount,” Smart said. “It’s really important that we play up tempo, press the advantage of just being athletic and being long, and use our speed in transition. The flip side of that is transition defense — I think we’re making some progress with that, but still an area where we need to make a lot of strides.”
Offensively, Smart thought that the Longhorns were a little too aggressive cutting off the ball, which hurt the team’s spacing at times against the Vaqueros.
“We’ve got to hold our spacing a little bit better and then cut at the right time, so that’s definitely an area to improve with this next game,” Smart said.
For Brown, the emphasis is on finding the difficult balance between better shot selection and continuing to play with confidence and aggressiveness. The latter two areas seem to come easily for the high-flying freshman, but his shot selection early against UTRGV demonstrated room for improvement.
“We want him to be aggressive, but we also want him to take the right shots, just like we want everyone on our team to take the right shots,” Smart said. “We spend a lot of time talking about the shots we want, which are getting deep into paint and step-in, wide-open, uncontested threes.”
Since Brown is a willing learner, he could benefit from watching how Kai Jones played against URGV. The rising sophomore bought into Smart’s coaching about taking higher-percentage shots this season, passing up several opportunities from beyond the arc to focus on getting into the paint. Jones finished 6-of-6 shooting.
Kenpom.com gives Texas an 80-percent win probability against Davidson.