The Texas Longhorns are without an NCAA Tournament win since 2014.
Changing that against a 27-win Nevada Wolf Pack squad on Friday won’t happen easily. Head coach Eric Musselman’s rotation is comprised of a versatile group of veterans with no shortage of experience winning basketball games, albeit at a competition level not quite what Texas endured throughout the Big 12 slate.
Nevada has not faced a team ranked higher than 50th in Kenpom's rankings since Dec. Texas has faced 10 top-50 teams since Jan. 31.— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) March 11, 2018
Nevada starts a pair of seniors and three juniors, and the trio of Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin collectively shoulder the brunt of the load, combining to average 50.6 points, 20.4 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game as the headliners of a lineup that’s fairly positionless.
But despite Nevada’s edge in the experience and productivity department, Texas can significantly bolster its odds of advancing to the Round of 32 by attacking a Wolf Pack weakness and hindering their strength.
For as depleted as the Texas rotation may be when considering the losses of Andrew Jones to leukemia and Eric Davis Jr. to alleged NCAA infractions, Nevada is even shorter on personnel resources.
Since losing point guard Lindsey Drew to an Achilles injury in mid-February, Musselman has essentially instituted a six-man rotation. Kendall Stephens and Hallice Cooke join Caroline and the Martin brothers in the starting rotation, but in terms of talent off the bench, it’s basically Josh Hall and no one else. Save that for that unit, Elijah Foster has seen just 206 minutes all season, which is 20 fewer than Jones played for Texas, despite a fractured wrist and the aforementioned cancer diagnosis. Only 46 of Foster’s minute have come since Drew’s injury. The rest of the bench has seen a whopping total of 14 minutes throughout the past seven games.
That’s an average of just 8.6 minutes per game allocated to everyone outside of the six-man rotation throughout the past seven games.
This serves as good news for Texas if it can capitalize on Nevada’s lack of proven depth.
With just six contributors in the rotation, Nevada quite simply can’t afford foul trouble against a Texas team that attacks the basket quite frequently, especially considering the Wolf Pack are tied for 202nd nationally with 587 fouls committed this season.
A healthy Mo Bamba would help, as he has the highest free-throw rate on the team, with Jericho Sims just behind him. Among the guards, Kerwin Roach II has found success getting to the rim and finishing or drawing fouls. In fact, the Texas offense is at its best when it can do those two things.
If Texas can force Nevada into foul trouble, it will not only sideline high-volume contributors, but will force players that rarely see the floor to fill the void and try to help win an NCAA Tournament game, which is a tall order.
Thus far, Nevada has seen a player foul out 16 times.
If Texas suffers an early NCAA Tournament exit, it will likely be because Nevada poured it on from the perimeter.
The Wolf Pack rank 43rd nationally in three-point attempts (830) and 20th in total three-point field goals made (330), with 311 coming from the aforementioned six-man rotation. That crop of capable and willing shooters are collectively hitting upwards of 40 percent of their perimeter attempts this season.
For perspective, out of Texas’ entire schedule, only Michigan, West Virginia and Kansas shot more threes, and the Longhorns finished just 1-4 in those five matchups, and Nevada connects at a more efficient clip than the Wolverines and Mountaineers.
Texas finished the season ranked 71st in three-point field goal defense (33%), which is also good for 3rd in the Big 12, but although the overall body of work defending the perimeter is a solid, the Texas record against comparable competition this season isn’t ideal.
That means attacking closeouts and running shooters off the perimeter.
With Cooke standing at 6’3 and the rest of Nevada’s rotation listed at 6’7, Texas’ defensive advantage will come by forcing the Wolf Pack away from their comfort on the perimeter and forcing them to challenge the 6’9 Jericho Sims, 6’9 Dylan Osetkowski, and the 6’11 Mohamed Bamba, who is averaging 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes.
If Texas can force Nevada inside, and meanwhile, force its key contributors in a short rotation outside of the game in foul trouble, Friday may mark the first NCAA Tournament win of the Shaka Smart era.
If not, the inconsistency woes that have plagued the ‘Horns since the non-conference schedule may very well prove to be why Texas watches the rest of March Madness from home.