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The NCAA Tournament Starts Tonight for the Texas Longhorns Against Northern Iowa

The Texas Longhorns play their first round game against the UNI Panthers in Chesapeake Energy Arena, located in Oklahoma City. The game will tip off tonight around 8:50 CDT, and airs on TBS.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The first week of the NCAA Tournament is a cruel exercise that reduces 68 teams to 16 in a hurry; either the Texas Longhorns or the Northern Iowa Panthers will learn this tonight. One team gets to hang around in Oklahoma City for the weekend, while the other will get sent home for the summer.

For the last few weeks the Texas Longhorns have been stuck in a rut, but that means little now. All that matters now is the W. There are no style points in single elimination play -- only wins and losses. Every game is a new game, and the problems of the recent past need not follow Shaka Smart's club to Oklahoma.

But things aren't just up to Texas; the Panthers of Northern Iowa -- champions of the Missouri Valley Conference -- will also have a say in the matter.

Ben Jacobson's team is experienced, with the majority of the teams minutes going to juniors and seniors. We have already taken a look at the Panthers, but to summarize briefly, things pretty much revolve around senior point guard Wes Washpun.

Jacobson's offense features a spread out floor that allows his athletic senior point guard Wes Washpun to play off the bounce and find seams in the defense. Washpun is not a terrific perimeter shooter himself, but he goes to the rim with bad intentions. 37 percent of his chances come at the rim, and has converted 68 percent of these shots, which is is a pretty good percentage for a 6-1 guard.

But Washpun is perhaps even more dangerous when he can attack the defense to draw help defenders and find his teammates open from beyond the arc. He is surrounded by three dangerous perimeter threats -- Jeremy Morgan, Paul Jesperson, and Matt Bohannon -- and two forwards in Klint Carlson and Bennett Koch who can finish around the rim.

UNI isn't deep, with Washpun, Bohannon, Morgan, Jesperson, and Carlson all seeing heavy minutes late in the season and during the MVC tournament. All five of these players exceeded 30 minutes during the conference championship game, and both Washpun and Bohannon both were on the floor for 42 minutes in UNI's overtime win over Wichita State in the semifinals.

The return of Cameron Ridley

While Texas' senior center Cam Ridley, who has been out recovering from a broken foot since December, technically played in Texas' loss to Baylor last week, he was only on the floor for two minutes. But according to Shaka Smart, Ridley is ready to go, and could see significant time in the game tonight.

While Smart indicated that 20 minutes for Ridley may be possible, even 10 to 15 reasonably effective ones could make a real difference for the Longhorns. As we have pointed out at various points throughout the season, while Prince Ibeh has been rather effective during the conference season, he cannot play every minute of a game. 10-15 good minutes from Ridley would go a long way towards covering the time when Ibeh sits. If Ridley is back and capable of once again defending the rim, then it will make the Texas defense substantially better, as it will mean that Shaka Smart can play one of his two rim protectors for nearly every minute of the game.

And that rim protection will be important, as the Texas Longhorns are likely to go as far as their defense can take them. The opportunity is there for a tournament run, and a strong showing by Ibeh and Ridley can go a long way to making this happen.

Ridley can also give Texas an offensive dimension that it has been missing since he was injured. Northern Iowa is a tough defensive team that will pack the interior with defenders, but none of those defenders will be able to individually deal with someone as physically overwhelming as the Texas big man.

It is all about the shots

While the big guys are important, this game may ultimately come down to what Texas' perimeter shooters -- specifically Connor Lammert, Javan Felix, and Eric Davis -- do from long range.

Northern Iowa will work to take away Isaiah Taylor's drives to the rim, and they may be able to throw enough layers of defense in front of Taylor that the path to the goal will become too difficult to traverse. If that happens, the Longhorns are going to need to hit some shots from the outside. A good day from Lammert and Felix could put the Panthers away early. A bad day will turn this game into a long, hard grind.

Dealing with Washpun

On the defensive end, the Texas Longhorns will have to have a sound plan for guarding Washpun without over-committing perimeter help. Having Ibeh and Ridley in front of the rim is a good start, but Shaka Smart will need to find one or more players who can guard him one on one away from the basket.

This is a place where Kerwin Roach, Kendal Yancy, and Demarcus Holland will be needed. Washpun won't be able to physically overwhelm these three players with his athleticism in the way that he might be able to against a hobbled Isaiah Taylor. While Holland and Yancy have had quiet seasons, both have at times been critically important to Texas' perimeter effort, and both are fully capable of using their length, footwork, and quickness to hound the smaller Washpun. And in Yancy's case, his considerable physical strength can come into play as well.

And then there is Kerwin Roach, who as a freshman is probably already Texas' best defender. While Roach got off to a slow start this season, he has been balling like an upperclassmen for nearly the last two months. I was excited when he committed to Texas last year, but didn't really know how quickly he could move along his development curve. It turns out he is running up it rather fast.

I cannot stress this enough -- I love watching Kerwin Roach play basketball. I love his overwhelming athleticism, I love his underrated stroke, I love his focus on defense and the general havoc he causes on that end, and I love his willingness to stick his nose inside and mix it up with the big guys on the glass.

Tonight will be a good night for all of that.

In March, you cannot afford a bad night

This is it. One bad evening, and Texas' NCAA trip will be finished in just a few hours. And that bad evening is within the range of possibilities.

But this Texas team has a lot of upside. A lot of untapped potential that has only briefly been realized. Maybe the flashes of brilliance we have seen this season -- most notably a few weeks ago in the last half dozen minutes against Oklahoma -- will return.

Basketball is a game of aggression and control. Teams are at their best when they strike that balance.

If it is going to happen for the Longhorns, it might as well start tonight.