On Saturday night, Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns will welcome the West Virginia Mountaineers for their Big 12 home opener. All conference games are critical and tonight represents an opportunity for Texas to start its conference season at 2-0, something that hasn’t happened for the Horns since 2011. The fact that it also happens to run concurrently with a Dallas Cowboys playoff game suggests to me that there will be good seats to be had.
For Texas, this has already been a season full of twists and turns, and with Big 12 play underway, there will surely be more ahead. But many of the twists are perhaps a consequence of simple probability theory; when Texas faces a quality opponent, Longhorn offensive success seems to be tightly tied to how well Shaka Smart’s men shoot the three. When they make them — and did they ever against Kansas State — the Texas offense is pretty effective. When they don’t, there isn’t a lot else to fall back on — to be completely fair there aren’t many teams that can survive in games where perimeter shots aren’t falling.
While there are not many of these teams, there are some. One such opponent — the West Virginia Mountaineers — comes to town tonight.
For as long as pretty much anyone can remember, coach Bob Huggins’ teams have won by getting vastly more shot attempts than their opponents through a combination of offensive rebounding, protecting the ball, and playing tough, turnover-forcing defense. This season, the formula isn’t quite where it has been. The Mountaineer offense understandably misses Jevon Carter. Carter made his name on the defensive end of the floor, but by his senior year had become a steady and reliable offensive player with a tendency to make big shots and big plays when they were needed. This season, Covington, Kentucky native Beetle Bolden is doing his best as the team’s primary ball handler, and he is still a dangerous shooter from deep, but the team’s offense just doesn’t work like it did with Carter.
Most notably turnovers have been a problem; I am sure Huggins has been using the “F word” a lot lately.
Huggins is facing an additional unexpected challenge. His team’s best player, Sagaba Konate, is currently sitting out with a knee injury. This means that West Virginia’s great rim protector is gone, which opens up a lot of chances for Kerwin Roach and Matt Coleman to attack the gambling Mountaineer defense off the dribble and for lobs to Jaxson Hayes along the back line.
For the Mountaineers, victory probably means that its trio of forwards in Esa Ahmad, Lamont West, and Wesley Harris will need to shoulder the load offensively. Ahmad is a senior, and along with Bolden is a primary offensive option. West and Harris are both rangy stretch-fours who shoot well from the perimeter, rebound, and try to deflect passes at the front of the West Virginia press.
If nothing else, tonight serves as a showcase for basketball players from the Cincinnati area who play in the Big 12, with Jaxson Hayes, Beetle Bolden, and Lamont West all on the floor.
The game tips in Austin at 8 PM CST, and airs on ESPN2.