The Texas Longhorns entered the Christmas break on a six game winning streak. Tonight they return to the court to face a frequent non-conference opponent, the 8-3 Connecticut Huskies.
It is both an exciting time for Texas and a challenging one, as the Longhorns will be without starting center Cameron Ridley, after the senior big man broke his foot. This is a huge loss for Texas.
After winning the 2014 NCAA tournament, Kevin Ollie's Huskies followed up with a disappointing 2014-15 season last year. But UConn has retooled with a couple of transfers, including one who should be familiar to Texas fans, and brings a balanced squad to Austin.
Scouting the Huskies
It would have been hard to predict that in a Texas recruiting class headlined by high school All-American Myck Kabongo and three other top 100 players, the person with arguably the best college career in the group would be one of the last players added to the class -- Sterling Gibbs. (I say "arguably" because Jonathan Holmes gives Gibbs a run for his money, and after an up and down career Sheldon McClellan is balling this year as a senior in Miami.)
Gibbs' college basketball journey has been a strange one. He originally signed an NCAA letter of intent to play for Maryland, but was granted his release from it when long time head coach Gary Williams retired. He ended up finding a landing spot in Austin. But the New Jersey native only played for Rick Barnes for a single year before he decided to transfer to a school closer to home to be near his sick father. After sitting out for a year, he used his second and third seasons at Seton Hall, where he was one of the best guards in the Big East. And now after graduating, he has relocated to Storrs, where he has settled into Kevin Ollie's starting lineup.
Playing with better teammates than he has the last two seasons, Gibbs doesn't dominate the ball in the same way that he did at Seton Hall. But he is still an effective scorer, and as a career 39 percent three point shooter is someone that the Texas defense needs to account for.
Another graduate transfer, Shonn Miller from Cornell, has helped to bolster the Husky front line. The 6-7 Miller has played very well for UConn, and gives Ollie a scoring threat inside. While Miller liked to hoist threes in Ithaca, the career 27 percent three point shooter seems to have given up on the long range game this season, which is probably for the best.
Another Husky has Longhorn ties, although his are more tenuous than Gibbs' are. 6-7 sophomore Daniel Hamilton will have a face that looks familiar to Texas fans -- it is hard to miss the resemblance to his older brother Jordan, who played two seasons at Texas before becoming a first round NBA draft pick. The younger Hamilton's game also has some similarities with big brother's, in that Daniel Hamilton is a player who does a lot of different things well. He can score the ball (he is second on the team with 13 PPG), pass (he leads UConn with 5.9 assists per game), rebound (he is the team's leading rebounder with 8.7 per game), and shoot from the outside (while he is not the prolific three point shooter his brother was, he has made 34 percent of his threes in his college career).
The final member of UConn's big four is 6-4 junior Rodney Purvis. Purvis is a basketball oddity, in that he is somehow a career 39 percent three point shooter while simultaneously averaging 53 percent from the free throw line. Like a few of his teammates, Purvis didn't start his career at Connecticut, playing his freshman year at North Carolina State before transferring to Storrs. Purvis leads his team in scoring (at 15.2 per game). He likes to get out on the break and score in transition and along with Gibbs serves as a threat from the perimeter.
UConn is on a short list of the best basketball programs of the last 20 years. And much of that success has been because the Huskies have always dominated the paint on defense. But now UConn has a huge hole on the defensive interior, as center Amida Brimah is currently out for six to eight weeks after breaking a finger a week ago. That is a big deal, as Brimah was blocking approximately 17 percent of opponent two point shooting attempts prior to the injury, which was the second highest rate in the nation. (Cameron Ridley, with a block percentage of 14 percent, currently ranks fifth nationally on this list.)
Ollie just doesn't have anyone who can back fill for Brimah. Consider that so far when Brimah plays, opponents are shooting just 37 percent on twos, compared with 47 percent when he sits. 6-10 junior Kentan Facey, 6-11 freshman Steven Enoch, and 6-10 senior Phillip Nolan are attempting to hold down the fort in Brimah's absence.
Texas and Connecticut have been frequent non-conference opponents in recent years, and some of these games have been really good, coming down to the final possession. For example, last year's game was decided by a Jonathan Holmes game winning three off of a set sideline in-bounds play.
And it is of course hard to forget Kemba Walker's late game fireworks in Austin a few years ago.
So what is in store for tonight? First off, UConn is a very good basketball team, even without Brimah. The Huskies' three losses have all come on neutral floors against Syracuse, Gonzaga, and Maryland. And coach Ollie's team has cut up its two other major conference opponents: Michigan and Ohio State.
But Texas has been playing pretty well lately. After a rough November, the Longhorns are 6-0 in December, and given the home venue should be viewed as slight favorites to win this game. Of course, there is the recent bad news that Texas center Cameron Ridley will be out that will temper optimism for the Longhorns.
Hamilton presents a difficult match up for Texas. At 6-7, Hamilton is much bigger than nearly all of Texas' perimeter players. Longhorn guard Demarcus Holland has had some trouble during his senior season, but this is the sort of game where Holland will likely spend a fair bit of time on the floor, as he is the only Texas defender with a history of successfully containing tall and skilled perimeter players.
A fun and exciting game seems to be a reasonable expectation. The game tips off shortly after 8 PM CST, and airs on ESPN2.