The Texas Longhorns are amid a potentially season-defining slump. After snagging back-to-back wins to begin the Big 12 slate, Shaka Smart’s squad has endured four losses throughout the past 5 games, and thus, slipped to 11-8 overall entering the final six-week stretch of the regular season.
However, despite the recent woes, Texas still stands as a 9-seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology. But in order to fulfill any hopes of a trip to the Big Dance, the Longhorns will need to return to the winning form they flashed at the front end of the season and the earliest portion of the conference schedule.
Saturday’s Big 12-SEC Challenge showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs should provide an ideal opportunity to do exactly that.
Similar to Texas, Georgia has run into a rough patch as of late under first-year head coach Tom Crean, who spent nine years with Indiana before being fired following the 2016-17 season. Only 18 games into the season, the Bulldogs are already fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives at 9-9 following a four-game losing skid and five losses in six tries.
Four of those five losses did come at the hands of ranked foes in No. 3 Tennessee, No. 11 Auburn, No. 12 Kentucky, and most recently, No. 25 LSU, but said losses came by a combined 81 points. Georgia’s loss to Florida last Saturday was a double-digit defeat as well, so not only have the Bulldogs been losing quite a bit as of late, but they’re hardly remaining competitive.
To an extent, that much was to be expected for a Georgia team that was picked to finish 13th in the preseason SEC media poll.
After losing SEC Player of the Year Yante Maten, who now calls the Miami Heat home after serving as the lifeblood of Georgia’s offense last season, the Bulldogs lack star power, which has consequently resulted in a lack of consistent quality offense. Georgia has been limited to 70 points or fewer six times throughout the past 14 games and overall, the Bulldogs rank 140th in adjusted offense, per KenPom.
The Bulldogs do have capable scorers, such as sophomore forward Rayshaun Hammonds and rim-protecting sophomore forward Nicolas Claxton (54 blocks), as the two have combined to average 25.7 points per contest. Junior guard Tyree Crump, a 39-percent three-point shooter, is just shy of double figures at 9.8 points per game, and he’s doing that in only 19 minutes per game.
Senior forward Derek Ogbeide, a 6’9, 250-pound interior presence, has been impactful, as well, averaging 9.6 points and 6.1 boards per contest.
Collectively, the Bulldogs are a fairly experienced bunch with senior point guard William Jackson II and sophomore guard Teshaun Hightower joining the aforementioned Hammonds, Claxton, and Ogbeide in the starting lineup. Joining Crump to essentially solidify a nine-man rotation is senior forward E’Torrian Wilridge, junior guard Jordan Harris, and freshman guard Tye Fagan, though the three are collectively contributing only 11.9 points per outing.
On paper, Texas should own the edge, but the same could be said of the Longhorns losses to Radford, VCU, and Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs are in a rebuild during Crean’s first season on campus, while Texas at least has the pieces in place to compete at a high level. On some nights, such as the wins over No. 7 North Carolina, Purdue, Kansas State, No. 20 Oklahoma, and even throughout the two-point road loss to No. 7 Kansas, the pieces fit impressively enough.
On other nights, not so much.
As far as Saturday afternoon in Athens is concerned, Texas would greatly benefit from improved productivity from the perimeter. Pitted against Claxton and Ogbeide, Jaxson Hayes and Dylan Osetkowski should have plenty on their plate in the paint, and Hammonds should provide an interesting challenge for the Longhorns defense, most likely Kerwin Roach II, in particular. Jackson and Hightower typically providing little offensively should work in Texas’ favor, but on the other end of the floor, the two guards each boast 6’4 size, which could potentially prove problematic for Matt Coleman (6’2) and Elijah Mitrou-Long (6’1).
If the Texas guards can find their offensive footing, and more specifically, their shooting touch, the Longhorns should enjoy enough firepower to at least outlast Georgia, considering the Bulldogs’ lackluster offense will be pitted against a Longhorns team that ranked 18th in adjusted defense.
Tip-off is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 26 at 1:00 p.m. Central on ESPN2.