While the Big 12 Conference slate is still entering its earliest stages, each game is already of the upmost importance, especially for Skaka Smart’s 8-5 Texas Longhorns. While this may not have been the case just over a week ago, Cameron Ridley fracturing his left foot just prior to a crucial non-conference test against Connecticut has subsequently led to two straight Texas losses and an uncertain identity. And with this absence likely assuring Texas will see its fair share of losses between facing Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Baylor, and West Virginia twice, each win against the remainder of the conference is crucial.
The Longhorns dropped their first conference effort of the season to Texas Tech 82-74, despite Isaiah Taylor’s career-high 35 points, while Kansas State dropped its opener to No. 19 West Virginia in double OT. Tonight, the two look to get their first conference win in Austin.
Huge Big 12 swing game tonight in Austin between Kansas State and Texas. Both teams are 0-1 in league play. Both desperately need a win.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 5, 2016
On paper, this matchup favors Texas. Although Ridley’s absence has been more than a little noticeable, especially on the offensive end, it would be safe to assume the Longhorns won’t need to survive a shootout to end the two-game slump. The effects of some significant offseason attrition to key players have, in terms of shooting, made Kansas State the worst in the conference. Bruce Weber’s Wildcats are dead last in the Big 12 in field goal percentage (.429), three-point field goal percentage (.285), and adjusted field goal percentage (.474). It literally can’t get any worse than K-State thus far. And while this may not seem as much of an issue considering K-State does, after all, have 10 wins in 13 tries, that’s not exactly the case.
To my eye, Kansas State has played three teams likely NCAA Tournament-bound – No. 9 North Carolina, Texas A&M, and West Virginia. All three outings have resulted in losses. But K-State’s 10 wins, on the other hand, have come against competition collectively owning a 62-80 record, which includes five .500 and below teams and a 7-4 Georgia squad as the most notable victory. But this shouldn’t indicate Texas is simply going to show up and roll over a Bruce Weber coached team, which doesn’t happen to have some quality talent. With Marcus Foster, Nino Williams, and Thomas Gipson no longer around, Wesley Iwundu is the new big man on campus; he leads K-State in scoring (13.5 ppg), along with 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists a night. Senior Justin Edwards and freshman Kamau Stokes round out a wing trio that collectively contributes 35.7 points, 13.2 boards and 9.1 assists.
Unfortunately for the freshman Stokes, and whomever else absorbs the task, the Longhorns perimeter is headlined by one of the most skilled floor generals in the nation in Isaiah Taylor, who’s averaging 26.6 points and 4.6 assists over the past three games. But there’s little doubt that Taylor will show up to play. With Ridley out and not coming back anytime soon, the key for Texas tonight and going forward is to fid some consistent scoring from other options, which hasn’t come to fruition just yet. Although Texas’ perimeter includes a slew of prized freshmen and experienced vets, the productivity has been minimal in Texas’ last two losses. Not only have has the combination of Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Tevin Mack, Eric Davis Jr., Kerwin Roach Jr., and Kendal Yancy failed to produce more than one double digit scorer over the past two games, but the bunch has collectively averaged 5.5 points per game over this stretch, with little help from Yancy and Holland’s 0-point efforts in virtually no court time. This trend quite simply can’t continue, even if it may be against a K-State offense that’s somehow two points per game worse than Texas’ 75.8.
It will also be interesting to see how Prince Ibeh, Connor Lammert and Shaq Cleare fare against Stephen Hurt and freshman Dean Wade, who’s 10.9 points are third on the team. While it’s not expected for Ibeh or Cleare to step in and contribute too much on the scoreboard, tonight could be an opportunity for the senior Lammert to try and take advantage of a freshman and find some scoring. Lammert is averaging only 5.9 points and has scored in double figures only once this season.
But as noted, the difference in this game will assuredly be perimeter play. While it’s certainly possible, I don’t expect Texas’ small army of guard to continue their collective slump. If any mixture of the group can get Taylor some scoring assistance, the Horns’ leader should be able to carry Texas to its first conference victory of the season.
Prediction: Texas-79, Kansas State-71