Instead of a high-profile matchup against the No. 2 Baylor Bears to open conference play — a game scheduled for last Sunday that was postponed because of COVID concerns in the Baylor program — the No. 11 Texas Longhorns will host the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Erwin Center on Sunday at 1 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network.
Oklahoma State enters the game at 6-1 coming off a one-point loss to TCU in the conference opener for both teams and ranked No. 50 overall in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric. If Texas is going to legitimately challenge for the Big 12 title this season, this is exactly the type of game that the Longhorns need to win consistently.
The home tilt against the Cowboys will provide a first look for the Longhorns at superstar freshman Cade Cunningham, the nation’s top prospect in the 2020 recruiting class who is living up to his billing already. At 6’8 and 220 pounds, Cunningham is a matchup nightmare — he has point guard skills in the body of a forward and has even spent some time playing center recently for head coach Mike Boynton. In fact, playing Cunningham at the five is the most frequently used lineup for Oklahoma State over the last five games.
Whether it’s at point guard or center or forward, Cunningham has transitioned quickly to the college game, averaging 18.3 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game, and 3.9 assists per game through the first seven contests. In the early going, Cunningham has shown a knack for drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line, weaknesses for the Texas defense through the first seven games.
One big question for the Horns is which players draw the assignment of guarding Cunningham — he’s likely too big and too physical for guards like Matt Coleman or Courtney Ramey to defend. So head coach Shaka Smart may rely heavily on Brock Cunningham or wings like Kai Jones and Greg Brown III in his attempts to slow down Cunningham, who is currently the only consistent three-point shooter for Oklahoma State in addition to all the other ways that he impacts the game.
Fueled by Cunningham and junior guard Isaac Likekele, the Cowboys play with one of the fastest paces in the country, sitting at No. 31 in adjusted tempo. Since Oklahoma State doesn’t shoot the ball well from distance, Texas needs to place an emphasis on transition defense to keep the visitors from getting easy shots early in the shot clock and pack the paint to force Oklahoma State to hit from distance to keep pace.
After an unacceptable meltdown over the last 10 minutes against Sam Houston State, Texas will also have to play with more consistent intensity and focus than it did against the Bearkats on Wednesday
In addition, as the Horns move into conference play, better shot selection and better decisions overall with the basketball will become increasingly more important for Brown. He leads the team in rebounding and blocks while ranking third in scoring, but he hasn’t been efficient, ranking second in turnovers and hitting only 22.6 percent from three-point range despite taking nearly as many attempts as the three lead guards. The usage rate for Brown is remarkable even on a national level — only 55 players in the entire country use more possessions than the Vandegrift product.
“One thing he just had to learn is to find his niche within the offense,” Andrew Jones said of Brown on Friday. “And it’s just a learning curve. I had to learn it. I’m still learning it. A lot of guys are still learning the way to find their offense within our set plays.”
Brown is not only adjusting to the quality of help defense in college basketball, but advanced scouting is also trying to take away his favored drive to his left. Jones believes that when Brown becomes more unpredictable, it won’t be as easy for opponents to anticipate his moves. But it’s also the case that Brown is still adjusting to playing within a team framework for the first time instead of almost entirely carrying the burden himself every night.
As Brown continues to make those adjustments and become more comfortable with a more limited role on this Longhorns team, his experienced teammates have to play with a higher level of efficiency on offense and consistent dedication on defense.
If Texas can accomplish those goals on Sunday, it should come away with a victory in a game that KenPom.com affords the Longhorns a 75-percent win probability with a projected score of 74-67.