CBS college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg picked the No. 3 seed Texas Longhorns to advance to the Final Four immediately after the bracket was released, but in order to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Shaka Smart’s team needs to first get past the No. 14 seed Abilene Christian Wildcats.
At 23-4, Abilene Christian was the No. 2 seed in the Southland Conference Tournament and took down No. 1 seed Nicholls State 79-45 on Saturday to earn the conference’s automatic bid. So head coach Joe Golding’s team will enter next Saturday’s game against Texas playing with wins in 13 of its last 14 games and one of the nation’s best defenses.
An Abilene Christian alum, Golding is now in his 10th year with the Wildcats and has the program peaking under his direction. In 2019, when Golding received Southland Conference Coach of the Year recognition, Abilene Christian recorded its first 20-win season as a Division I program, a streak that Golding maintained over the last two seasons. The 2018-19 campaign also marked the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Beyond the pure success, though, Golding’s defense represents the biggest concern for a Texas team that sometimes struggles to value the basketball — Abilene Christian ranks No. 30 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric and No. 1 in opponent turnover percentage (26.7 percent) by ranking No. 4 in steal percentage (13.7).
In a 51-44 loss against Texas Tech in December, Abilene Christian’s defense held up, turning over the Red Raiders on 25 percent of the team’s possessions thanks to eight steals. The Wildcats were within one point with a little over eight minutes remaining, but were never able to take the lead.
In a Zoom call with reporters on Sunday evening, Smart hadn’t had time to start seriously scouting Abilene Christian, but he had watched that game against Texas Tech and called it “an absolute war.”
The Abilene Christian defense also defends the three-point line at a high level, ranking No. 13 in holding opponents to 29.1-percent shooting from beyond the arc. Against Texas Tech, the Red Raiders only made 2-of-15 attempts (13.3 percent). Arkansas had more success in an 85-72 win over Abilene Christian just before Christmas, hitting 36 percent on 25 attempts.
On offense, the Wildcats are average overall, but do two things well — share the basketball (No. 2 in assists/made field goals) and hit threes (No. 21 at 37.7 percent). Golding likes to go deep into his rotation, too, playing nine players 14 or more minutes per game. Eight of them average six or more points per game, led by 7’0 senior Kolton Kohl, who averages 12.3 points in only 18.9 minutes per game.
Because Abilene Christian plays so many players, there isn’t one three-point shooter to key on — eight players have 35 or more three-point attempts this season — but junior Clay Gayman leads the team with 26 makes and seniors Coryon Mason and Reggie Miller both connect at 40 percent from beyond the arc.
“We’ve got to do a good job on a variety of guys on their team,” Smart said. “Again, from what I know about them, they’ve got a bunch of guys that are very, very dangerous that don’t necessarily average like eye-popping numbers in terms of scoring. They shoot the ball really, really well.”
While Smart was meeting with the media, his assistant coaches were starting to call teams that played Abilene Christian this season to get verbal scouting reports on the Wildcats before Smart and his staff start diving into video analysis. Smart has already received two statistical, analytical breakdowns of Abilene Christian created outside the program.
As always, though, Smart keeps a large amount of his focus on his own team and what they need to do well to succeed.
“The one thing you don’t want to lose sight of is it’s about Jericho Sims playing with reckless abandon like he did last night,” Smart said. “It’s about Matt Coleman controlling the game like he did last night. It’s about getting Andrew [Jones] attacking, defending with aggressiveness like he did on on some of those possessions in the second half. That stuff’s most important.”
In odds released by BetOnline, Texas opened as a nine-point favorite over Abilene Christian. The game tips off at 8:50 p.m. Central on TruTV on Saturday.