For the second time is as many seasons, the Texas Longhorns have taken a colossal non-conference injury hit to a key asset. This time, the injury-bug came in the form of senior center Cameron Ridley's fractured left foot, which required surgery Tuesday and looks to sideline him 8-10 weeks.
As soon as the news broke, Shaka Smart and Texas were tasked with hosting a veteran-laden Connecticut unit in Austin with Big 12 play awaiting the team on Saturday. While this is a horribly untimely injury for Texas to suffer with Ridley amid a career season on both ends of the flood, the Horns' saw their first test without their senior Tuesday, and the results were to be expected.
In wake of Ridley's absence, the interior focus shifts to the heightened roles Prince Ibeh and Shaquille Cleare will absorb. For the most part, they both played about as well as you can ask for in light of such little preparation.
Ibeh has always been capable of protecting the rim at a high level, but his worst enemy is often his inability to avoid fouls in bulk. In the 18 minutes Ibeh saw last night, which is the most he's played this season, he essentially did as much as Texas could have possibly asked from him.
On the opening possession, Texas went straight to a dump-off to Ibeh, which resulted in a missed dunk. But only moments later, a similar effort led to a different result and Ibeh put the first points on the board for the Longhorns. But that would be the extent of Ibeh's offensive contributions. I tracked Ibeh as seeing only three low post/paint touches in a position to score. Ibeh's second came with 18:04 to play, which means he only touched the ball in position to score one more time in the next 38:04 of the game.
Sure, that's no surprise. But there were moments when Ibeh would establish position and the Texas guards noticeably had no confidence in what Ibeh could do with it. Also, Ibeh did a solid job from what I could tell running the high pick-and-roll the Longhorns use with Ridley, but UConn did well in preventing any lobs to Ibeh.
Ibeh had a much larger impact on the game defensively than offensively. What a shocker! But what is actually shocking the impact Ibeh provided being arguably as good as Ridley could have possibly done. While he did still have some teachable fouls, Ibeh tied his career high in blocks with five, along with a steal. And there came a point in the second half where Ibeh simply took over defensively, despite the Texas offense failing to do much with it. Here's a look at a five possession span headlined by Ibeh:
- Ibeh block
- Ibeh steal
- Ibeh rips guard and hits the floor for loose ball (gives Texas the possession arrow)
- Ibeh doesn't box out; Shonn Miller gets putback dunk.
- Ibeh block
I may not be the wisest defensive mind, but that doesn't seem like a bad stretch for Ibeh, by any means. Overall, his defensive presence and rejections led to fast break opportunities and points prevented, but for Ibeh to have any value in this rotation going forward, he quite simply has to stay out of foul trouble and give himself an opportunity to continue with comparable defensive performances.
For much of the same reasons as Ibeh, Cleare wasn't too involved offensively Tuesday night, either. He saw only four low post/paint scoring position touches, but managed to turn three of which into five points on the night. The other feed was mishandled and led to a turnover.
Texas Longhorns (@BR_UTLonghorns) December 30, 2015
But the difference between Ibeh and Cleare, is much like Ridley, Cleare was doing a great job fighting for position and calling for the ball; the Texas guards just didn’t seem too intent on making entry passes. While he’s not the athletic force Ridley had become this season, Cleare certainly has some nice low-post moves, and Texas virtually ignoring the paint all night like they did Tuesday won’t do much in effectively replacing Ridley.
Ibeh doesn't have much in the way of a low-post game, so ignoring his positioning is one thing, but Cleare deserves more touches than he received against UConn.
Defensively, Cleare left much to be desired. He let a few offensive boards fall into Huskie hands, and he simply didn’t seem to have the size and leaping ability to make UConn defenders fearful. Essentially, Cleare in gives Texas a small-ball lineup on the defensive end, considering the athletic drop between Cleare and Ibeh/Ridley.
Collectively, Texas has a ways to go in finding a way to get their big bodies involved again, most notably offensively. Shaka Smart is tasked with replacing 12.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks, and in his first effort to do so with Ibeh and Cleare, the duo combined for 8 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks.
This isn’t to say Texas needs to find a way to make them offensive focal points, but Ridley’s absence left a easily noticeable void offensively and consequently, Texas lived and ultimately died by relying exclusively upon the wings. Whether it’s a few more feeds to Cleare, or some lobs to Ibeh, Texas has to get the big guys involved. And rebounding was also a bit of a concern, as well. Between the 6’10, 260-pound Ibeh and the 6’9, 265-pound Cleare, 10 collective rebounds simply isn’t enough.
Luckily for Texas, I don’t think this obstacle is a vast as it may seem at the moment. Of course, losing Ridley is huge heading into conference play, but Texas does have a small army of more than capable guards who can help shoulder the scoring load, just as freshman Tevin Mack did last night with a career high 20 points aided by five threes. But this also means streaky shooters like Eric Davis Jr., and Javan Felix can’t shoot a collective 2-of-14 from the field and 1-of-7 from three, nor can everyone not named Tevin Mack connect on 1-of-14 from deep.
Although navigating through the Big 12 without Ridley is going to be a tremendous task in and of itself, the Longhorns are certainly capable of continuing to win games, just as they could have last night with the enhanced play from Davis and Felix.
It’s not time to panic just yet. Smart has made a career off of guard-heavy offenses, and he’ll now have nearly a week to adjust his game plan for a considerably favorable start to Big 12 play with Texas Tech, Kansas State, and TCU as the first three up.