The last thing a team riding a two-game losing skid wants is a trip to Lawrence, Kansas, but for the Texas Longhorns there really isn’t much choice. Texas tries to get things back on track tonight at Allen Fieldhouse, a venue where the Longhorns haven’t won against the Kansas Jayhawks since Jan. 22, 2011.
Shaka Smart’s team is in the midst of a rough patch, having dropped two consecutive games that projected as winnable. Texas still struggles to score when perimeter shots aren’t falling, and a lot of the time perimeter shots aren’t falling.
So what is it going to take for Texas to get better?
There are little tweaks that I would like to see — Texas plays with Eli Mitrou-Long handling the ball and Matt Coleman off the ball a lot more than is probably optimal, and I wish there were some set plays to help create easy looks that Texas could call when the regular offense bogs down. But mostly the team has bigger issues that only can be fixed with the passage of time — the Longhorns only play two seniors and one junior, and only one of these players was originally recruited into the program, meaning that the two classes that should be the core of this team’s rotation have once again vanished. I say once again because this has basically been the story of Texas basketball for much of the past decade, and is a problem spanning two separate coaching staffs.
So, like I said, facing Kansas on the road is a tough way to go when the goal is to get right, but the schedule is what it is.
This iteration of the Jayhawks looks quite different from the Kansas teams of recent years — most of the key players will be new to Texas fans who will be tuning into their first game. This is particularly true since junior center Udoka Azubuike’s season ended with a hand injury about a week ago (it is similar to the injury that sidelined him for much of his freshman year, but on the opposite hand).
Kansas’ best player is Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson. Part of the fall out in the transition from Josh Pastner to Tubby Smith at Memphis was that Dedric and his younger brother KJ left the program when Smith showed no interest in retaining their father on the coaching staff. This meant that one of the best forwards in the country was suddenly a free agent, and the Kansas staff jumped on the opportunity.
Dedric Lawson is a tough, physical, and skilled low post player. He isn’t an above-the-rim athlete, but he has solid footwork and a great feel for how to score and pass in and around the basket. The loss of Azibuike means that Kansas has to rely on Lawson even more than it did early in the year. Kansas is currently still figuring out how to play, but don’t be surprised if Texas sees some small lineups where Lawson is playing as the five man. It will be a good test for Longhorns freshman center Jaxson Hayes in these situations, as he will have to guard a much more physical and experienced player without fouling.
Aside from losing his center, coach Bill Self is operating with another added challenge this year. For the first time in at least a decade, he is trying to make it work with young guards. Kansas starts two extremely talented freshmen in the backcourt, with top recruits Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes functioning as the primary ball handlers. These guys are both future NBA players, but they are still freshman, and the drop off from Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham to Dotson and Grimes has just been massive. For Kansas to explore its upside potential this season, Grimes in particular really needs to start to put it together — Kansas was a preseason national title favorite in part because it was assumed that Grimes would ball out. Dotson and Grimes are backed up by Cal transfer Charlie Moore.
Self does return a few familiar names. Senior wing Lagerald Vick remains an extremely dangerous shooter as well as an athletic finisher around the basket. Marcus Garrett is a 6’5 Swiss Army knife who is probably the conference’s best perimeter defender, though his jump shot is probably most charitably described as under construction.
There are also a hodgepodge of other players that Self is now working into the rotation to try to figure out how to handle minutes that were previously going to Azibuike. KJ Lawson, Mitch Lightfoot, and David McCormack all see minutes off the bench, although those minutes vary from game to game. Self has also recently decided to burn the redshirt on 6’5 pogo stick Ochai Agbaji, and so far that decision has looked pretty good; Agbaji is an athletic and high-energy player who is coming for some of his more highly-regarded classmate’s minutes.
The game tips at 8 p.m. Central, and airs on ESPN.