12.20.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 5:15PM

Long Beach State 49ers (5-6) at #9/9 Texas Longhorns (9-1)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: LHN
Vegas: Texas -15.5 | KenPom: Texas, 71-56 (93%)

Although the Longhorns are favored in the rest of their non-conference games, there are still a pair of good tests left on their December home schedule. Stanford, who travels to Austin on Tuesday night, is the bigger name, but tonight’s opponent, Long Beach State, is certainly one of the better mid-majors to come through the Erwin Center in recent years.

Dan Monson has challenged his Long Beach State squad
(Photo credit: David Kohl/Associated Press)

Don’t let the 5-6 record fool you. Dan Monson drew up a brutal schedule for his 49ers, one which is currently ranked 6th-toughest in the country by Ken Pomeroy. That ranking doesn’t even include their remaining non-con schedule, which has road games with Texas, St. John’s, Syracuse, and Louisville.

Although the 49ers have played quite a few major-conference opponents close this year, they fell short in most of their upset bigs. Still, they managed to snag a pair of nice scalps in wins over Kansas State at home and Xavier on a neutral court. The 49ers had previously been blasted by Xavier in Cincinnati, playing such awful defense that they were able to lose by 23 points while shooting nearly 55% from the field.

Texas clearly has the edge on paper, but Long Beach State has a team that is quick and athletic enough to hang with big-name opponents. The 49ers also have a pair of familiar names that have played at other successful D-I programs, so this is not the clear mismatch that typifies most December home games for Texas. If Texas’ intense defensive focus happens to go on an early Christmas break, things could get interesting tonight.

Players to watch

The most familiar transfer at Coach Monson’s disposal is senior Tyler Lamb (No. 1), the former UCLA Bruin who is taking a ton of shots for the 49ers this season. Lamb is responsible for more than 25% of LBSU’s attempts when he’s on the court, and has made more than 35% of his three-point attempts this year.

Mike Caffey is still working on his levitation skills
(Photo credit: Mike J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Lamb also makes great cuts without the ball, which usually lead to easy layups when point guard Michael Caffey (No. 5) finds him flashing to the rim. Caffey has an outstanding assist rate of 32.7%, a number buoyed by his ability to exploit defensive cracks with dribble penetration and then find wide open teammates.

Defenses also have to pay very close attention to Caffey when he passes the ball off, as Long Beach State does a great job freeing him up on flares out to the perimeter, where he’s absolutely deadly in catch-and-shoot situations. Caffey leads the team with 44 long-range attempts, and has knocked down half of them.

Inside, freshman Temidayo Yussuf (No. 4) and senior David Samuels (No. 11) will have the tough task of matching up with the size of Texas. Both are a very lanky 6’7″, but Yussuf has much more muscle than would be expected of a mid-major freshman. He has no problem banging inside and absorbing contact while getting his shot up, but still needs some work on his post defense. Samuels uses more of a face-up game on offense, but his length helps inside defensively, and also causes some issues for opposing guards when he switches on perimeter screens.

Although he doesn’t average a ton of minutes, senior Eric McKnight (No. 12) is another name that will be familiar to college basketball fans. McKnight started his collegiate career at Iowa State, but became well-known as part of Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City run through the NCAA tournament. After earning a degree at FGCU, McKnight took advantage of the graduate transfer rule, and has played in nine of LBSU’s 10 games this season. In those appearances, McKnight has averaged 16.6 minutes, but has been plagued by foul trouble, being whistled for more than six fouls per 40 minutes.

Despite coming off the bench, Branford Jones (No. 14) is playing more than 21 minutes per game, and he is another three-point threat for the 49ers. Jones has made more than 40% of his long-range shots, but also makes significant contributions on the defensive end. His personal steal rate of 2.7% is ranked in the Top 500 nationally, but he manages to play that pesky defense without fouling. He is averaging just 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes, which also ranks in the Top 500.

Keys to the game

The 49ers have struggled to win defensive rebounds
(Photo credit: David Kohl/Associated Press)

1) Clean the offensive glass – While Long Beach State’s defense has been hit-or-miss this season, a recurring problem has been second-chance points. The 49ers have allowed opponents to reclaim 38% of their misses, which is currently one of the 30 worst marks in Division I. They have allowed opponents to crack the 40% plateau in five games, including a hideous 60% allowed at Stephen F. Austin on December 5th. The Longhorns are currently the sixth-best team in the nation when it comes to earning second chances, so they should be able to score a ton of extra points after winning back their own misses tonight.

2) Don’t lose the shooters – Long Beach State only shoots a few more threes than the average team, but they are quite accurate when they do put up a long-range shot. The Longhorns need to be ready to challenge on the perimeter when Caffey and the other 49ers create with dribble penetration, as kickouts are very common for LBSU. Texas also has to be ready to fight through screens off the ball, as Caffey will frequently be using them to try to free himself up for a catch-and-shoot from the arc.

3) Focus on feeding the post – In the first half against Texas State, the Longhorn big men gave up far too easily when fighting for post position. They came out of the locker room with a renewed focus on pounding it inside, and the bigs have played three strong halves of basketball since then. Long Beach State does not have the size to match up with Texas inside, and their own big men are prone to foul trouble. Texas needs to try to get Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner going inside, not only to tag Long Beach State with some fouls, but also to build on the recent success by both players before conference play arrives.

12.16.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 2:11PM

Lipscomb Bisons (4-5) at #9/9 Texas Longhorns (8-1)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: LHN
Vegas: OFF | KenPom: Texas, 77-57 (97%)

First things first, let’s address the mascot. Lipscomb insists that its mascot is the Bisons, not the Bison. Apparently at some point in time, bisons was an acceptable plural for that animal, and although it’s fallen out of general favor, it is still listed in some dictionaries. I know we’re all going to cringe every time it’s said tonight, but I have faith that we can remain strong and survive without stabbing anything into our ears.

No time for a formal preview post today, so I’ll be tweeting details about three Lipscomb players to watch and three things to watch for from UT in tonight’s game. You can catch that later this evening via the LRT Twitter feed, and the tweets will also be archived in this post at some point tonight, most likely after the game.

12.13.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:59AM

Texas State Bobcats (5-1) at #8/9 Texas Longhorns (7-1)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: LHN
Vegas: Texas -22.5 | KenPom: Texas, 70-51 (98%)

After a long week off for finals, the Texas Longhorns are back in action tonight, when they host Texas State in the first of a five-game homestand that will close out the non-conference slate. Although the Longhorns will face a pair of solid foes in Long Beach State and Stanford, they are still favored in each of those five games, with Ken Pomeroy currently giving Texas win percentages of at least 84% in all of them.

Tonight’s game falls in that time frame that can usually lead to lackluster performances by good teams. For most major conference teams, this is the start of the easier portion of their schedule, having just wrapped up the November tournaments and early December power-conference matchups. Throw in finals and a short holiday break just around the corner, and you find that this is typically the weekend that contending teams look rather pedestrian.

Danny Kasar had a rough first year in San Marcos
(Photo: Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY Sports)

Even with the Longhorns favored by a massive spread, this would be a dangerous night for them to fall asleep on the job. Texas State is now in the second year of the Danny Kaspar era, and after a dreadful first season, he’s restocked the roster with a ton of JUCO talent.

The Bobats have made nearly 40% of their threes this season, and have posted a defensive turnover rate of 25.7%, currently the 10th-best mark in Division I. Good three-point shooting is always an ingredient in upsets, and the Longhorns have also had trouble hanging on to the basketball. Although the Bobcats have taken a very small percentage of their shots from behind the arc, the interior size of the Longhorns will likely force them to spend more time on the perimeter tonight. If the Bobcats continue to shoot that well from beyond the arc, they could make things interesting.

Thanks to the explosion of streaming options and the expansion of college basketball coverage in the nine years I’ve been writing on this website, it’s very rare that I haven’t been able to see an opponent at least once before writing a game preview. With the incredibly soft schedule that Kaspar lined up for November, this will be one of those situations. Texas State has played a pair of teams that aren’t in Division I, while their other four opponents have an average KenPom rank of 302.5. There are only 351 D-I teams.

Without having seen the Bobcats play, the game preview will be quick and dirty, and really just consist of stats. In the team’s four D-I games, they utilized a seven-man rotation, with six of those players combining to play more than 84% of the available minutes. The seventh, JUCO combo guard Ethan Montalvo, averaged just under 15 minutes in D-I contests.

Junior center Emani Gant (No. 21) and 6’7″ sophomore forward Kavin Gilder-Tilbury (No. 1) are both high-usage players for Coach Kaspar, utilizing 24% and 24.7% of the possessions when they’re on the floor. In last year’s meeting with Texas, the 6’8″ Gant found his time limited by foul trouble, but still scored seven points and logged four assists. Gilder-Tilbury also contributed seven against the Longhorns, but connected on just one of his five three-point attempts.

This is the only D.J. Brown picture I could find.
Here, he plays airplane instead of defense.
(Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The bulk of the backcourt minutes are chewed up by seniors D.J. Brown (No. 0) and Wesley Davis (No. 10). Brown is a graduate transfer from San Jose State, and his leadership at the point has filled a massive hole for the Bobcats. In D-I games, he’s posted an assist rate of 20.5% during his time on the floor, while turning it over on just 9.9% of the team’s possessions. Davis is an excellent defender, as evidenced by his 5.2% steal rate against D-I competition, currently the 23rd-best mark in the country. The Longhorns were able to avoid falling victim to his quick hands last year, as he logged just one steal in 17 minutes.

Cameron Naylor (No. 24) and JaMarcus Witherspoon (No. 23) are two of the many JUCO additions to the Texas State roster. Naylor earned all-league honors in the Panhandle Conference last year, and has been the best offensive rebounder for the Bobcats so far this season, in terms of OR%. Witherspoon is a 6’4″ guard whose aggressive play has drawn more than five fouls per forty minutes.

Keys to the game

1. Hang on to the ball – The Texas State defense doesn’t do a very good job of forcing bad shots, instead relying on turnovers to shut down their opponents. The Longhorns have had a rash of troubling turnovers with Isaiah Taylor out of action, so they will need to take care of the ball tonight. If they can avoid dumb turnovers, they should be able to find some very easy looks inside.

2. Dominate the glass – The size advantage should not only allow Texas to find easy looks inside, but should also allow them to limit second-chance opportunities, while earning some putbacks of their own. The Longhorns outrebounded a very large Kentucky team last Friday night, but fell victim to rebounds when it mattered most. It should be much easier tonight for Texas to impose their will on the glass from tip to final buzzer.

3. Limit damage from the perimeter – Texas State only takes 23.8% of their shots from beyond the arc, but they have yet to face a team with as much size as the Longhorns. The Bobcats have made 39.6% of their limited three-point attempts, so Texas needs to make sure that they are getting hands up and actually challenging any long-range shots that Texas State tries tonight. Gilder-Tilbury was the team’s best three-point shooter last year, but it’s been Brown who is leading the way this year, sinking 8-of-16 since arriving in San Marcos.

12.06.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:46AM

#1/1 Kentucky Wildcats 63, #6/7 Texas Longhorns 51

As the Kentucky Wildcats charged out of the locker room in the second half, college basketball fans likely felt like they had seen this script before. The visiting Longhorns had played a tough 20 minutes to reach the half tied with Kentucky, taking away enough of UK’s strengths to overcome their own offensive struggles. But, as it had been with Providence and Buffalo earlier this year, the Longhorns soon saw just why No. 1 Kentucky is the most dangerous team in the country. The Wildcats surged ahead with a 10-0 run to open the half, and even built a lead as large as 16 points with less than 12 minutes to go.

Willie Cauley-Stein carried UK to victory
(Photo credit: James Crisp/Associatd Press)

But unlike the Friars and Bulls, the Longhorns refused to be buried. With 23,000 members of Big Blue Nation screaming at deafening levels, Texas clawed its way back into the game. Led by a poised Demarcus Holland, the Longhorns went on a 7-0 run of their own, and whittled the lead down to just five points with 1:44 to play. The Longhorns could not get any closer, as they failed to score on their final four possessions, and Kentucky padded the final margin with free throws and an authoritative alley-oop from Willie Cauley-Stein to cap the victory.

Although the constant whistles were frustrating, and the Longhorns had many moments that were extremely maddening for fans, this had to be one of the most positive losing experiences for the program in recent memory. Texas stood toe-to-toe with the nation’s best team in a hostile road environment and battled through adversity that would have certainly caused recent Longhorn teams to crumble. Without starting point guard Isaiah Taylor, and with foul trouble forcing coach Rick Barnes to constantly shuffle his big men, the Longhorns acquitted themselves well on the biggest of stages.

With the team now off all week due to finals, let’s take a look at six notes from a great showdown that Rick Barnes described as “a big-boy game.”

1. Horns dominated the glass, but lost the key rebounds

Kentucky entered the game having won more than 48% of their offensive rebounding chances. That ability to extend possessions and get easy follows in the lane had helped to buoy their strong offensive efficiency numbers. Texas did a fantastic job eliminating that aspect of the UK offense in the first half, using a 2-3 zone to force Kentucky into jump shots, while grabbing almost every single rebound. The Longhorns won back 87.5% of UK’s missed shots in the first half, and prevented Kentucky from scoring any second-chance points.

The final numbers say that Texas dominated the boards, as the Longhorns were the first team to win the rebounding battle against Kentucky this season, posting a 42-31 edge on the glass. However, Texas was so dominant on the boards in the first half that those overall stats obscure the fact that Kentucky won the boards when it mattered the most. The Wildcats reclaimed 67% of their missed shots in the second half and turned those into 10 second-chance points. On numerous occasions in the second half, Texas played excellent defense and forced a missed shot, only to see the Wildcats win it right back and make an easy follow.

2. Cameron Ridley continued to struggle

The last two weeks have been extremely tough for the big man, and the first few minutes against Kentucky again put Ridley in a bad spot. In Texas’s first six possessions, Ridley missed a jumper and was tagged with two offensive fouls, forcing him to the bench for the remainder of the first half, having seen just three minutes of action.

The big man was able to play an additional ten minutes in the second half, but again found himself whistled for an offensive foul midway through the second frame. Ridley has looked very tentative in recent weeks, seeming to freeze against pressure and double-teams. With the added complication of offensive fouls limiting his effectiveness even further, his only real impact on the game was five turnovers, including those three offensive fouls and a travel 25 feet from the basket.

Texas proved that they could hang with one of the nation’s best frontcourts, even with Ridley sitting on the bench. However, if the Longhorns want to be able to compete at the highest level, they will have to find a way to raise Ridley’s confidence once again and generate consistent production from him in conference play. If not, they will find it tough sledding against teams with comparable size.

3. Prince Ibeh was an unlikely hero down low

With Ridley neutralized early, Prince Ibeh was called on to provide minutes from the bench. On defense, his presence in the lane caused problems for the Kentucky frontcourt, as he made their shots in and around the lane very difficult. Ibeh battled foul trouble of his own, and you could clearly see the difference in the UK offense when he was riding the pine.

On the other end of the court, Ibeh was the recipient of some nice drive and dish plays that he was able to flush home. As usual, every one of his trips to the free-throw line was an adventure, where no one — including Ibeh himself — could guess where each of his shots would go. On the night, he was just 2-for-8 from the line, bringing his season average down to 29.4%. With Ibeh’s defense being an integral part of Texas’s success, his ineptitude at the line will continue to be a glaring weakness for the Horns, and one that teams will surely exploit in close games.

Demarcus Holland impressed against the Wildcats
(Photo credit: James Crisp/Associatd Press)

4. Demarcus Holland’s confidence is soaring

With Taylor out of action, Holland has shown much more of the offensive aggression of which we’ve seen flashes in the last two seasons. His ability to pick the right opportunities for a quick drive have been on display in the last five games, and that led to five assists and a key three-point play last night.

Holland also took over quite a bit of the ball-handling duties against the Wildcats, as Javan Felix struggled at the point. Kentucky likes to throw in some backcourt pressure to hurry opponents and force turnovers, but Holland proved himself a poised floor general in breaking that pressure. He repeatedly brought it up the floor and initiated the Texas offense, while only turning it over once on the night.

While Holland’s emergence as a steady ballhandler and floor general is a big development in Taylor’s absence, it also gives the Longhorns additional options once Isaiah returns. If opponents know that Holland is able to drain it from deep — where he’s now 5-for-11 on the year — and can also easily find space with the bounce, it will very difficult for opponents to focus solely on the big men when he and Taylor are on the court.

5. Felix resisted the temptation to take bad shots

With Holland taking over more of the ballhandling, Felix was able to slide back into his more natural role off the ball. As a result, it seemed like he took far fewer questionable shots, although his rushed three in the final few possessions came at an extremely inopportune time. Instead, Felix often opted to put the ball on the floor and find space inside the arc, where the length and speed of Kentucky forced him into some acrobatic misses.

Even though Felix wasted less possessions by firing up bad, early shots, he did still cost Texas numerous possessions in other ways. Poor ball control and questionable passes resulted in five turnovers for the guard, something that was absolutely crippling in a close game against a highly-efficient team.

It will be interesting to watch the backcourt dynamic in these final weeks of the non-conference schedule. If Holland emerges as the primary ballhandler, there’s reason for Texas fans to be optimistic that Felix will not only improve his shot selection, but also cut down on turnovers. It’s clear that Felix was put in a poor position by the Taylor injury, but Holland may be able to give him an opportunity for redemption by putting him back in his natural role.

6. The Longhorns again struggled with turnovers

Rick Barnes was frustrated by constant turnovers
(Photo credit: James Crisp/Associatd Press)

Felix and Ridley’s ten combined turnovers were just a fraction of the miscues that plagued Texas all night long. The Longhorns finished with 22 turnovers, wasting more than 32% of their possessions.

With those turnovers including numerous offensive fouls and a shot clock variation, there were less opportunities for Kentucky to turn those miscues into easy fast-break points that could whip Big Blue Nation into a frenzy. Still, Texas should be commended for their ability to get back quickly on the live-ball turnovers and limit the number of points they gave up as a result.

Even with the defense recovering and eliminating many of the fast-break opportunities, the Wildcats still scored 19 points off of the Texas mistakes. With the game separated by only two possessions in the final minutes, the Longhorns will certainly agonize over the ridiculous number of wasted opportunities and extra possessions that they gave Kentucky.

Perhaps most troubling is that these problems are nothing new for the Longhorns. Although the 32.8% turnover rate was easily the highest for the Horns so far this season, it was the fourth consecutive game in which Texas coughed it up on more than 20% of their possessions. With a very tough Big 12 conference slate just a few weeks away, the Longhorns have little time to correct an extremely troubling trend.

Up Next: vs. Texas State (4-1); Saturday, 7 P.M. CT (LHN)

12.05.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 5:03AM

#6/7 Texas Longhorns (7-0) at #1/1 Kentucky Wildcats (7-0)
Rupp Arena | Lexington, KY | Tip: 6 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
Vegas: Kentucky -11.5 | KenPom: Kentucky, 65-55 (86%)

The buzz around this year’s Longhorn team has been strong since the moment last year’s team was knocked out in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32. That only intensified in late April when Myles Turner decided to attend UT, and the national excitement continued to grow as the Horns notched neutral site wins over Iowa and Cal, and a true road win against UConn. As the hype train gained speed, one game was repeatedly mentioned by every announcer and publication.

After weeks of build-up, that big game is finally here. The matchup of the massive frontcourts of Texas and Kentucky is now just hours away, and although the absence of Isaiah Taylor will put a disappointing asterisk on the box score, that buzz and excitement is still in the air. Considering Taylor’s absence and the tough road environment, both Vegas and the legendary Ken Pomeroy don’t give the Longhorns much of a chance. Still, college hoops writers have pointed out all week that if any team is going to match up with this Kentucky juggernaut, the Longhorns are your first pick.

By the numbers

John Calipari is pumped about this year’s UK team
(Photo credit: James Crisp/Associated Press)

When you look at the statistics for the Wildcats, it’s hard to find a negative. It’s almost as if this is a video-game team where the programmers just decided to give everyone a 99 rating in every category, and you ended up with an entire roster of gigantic players with freakish athleticism. The only statistical areas measured by Pomeroy in which Kentucky is not ranked in the nation’s top 50 are free-throw percentage (65.3%; 253rd), three-point percentage (32.3%; 207th), and effective field-goal percentage (52.5%; 74th), with that last percentage actually being dragged down by the second one.

Overall, the Wildcats have the nation’s third-most efficient offense in terms of adjusted efficiency, with Pomeroy reporting 1.136 adjusted points per possession. On the other side of the court, they post the nation’s second-best adjusted defensive efficiency, averaging 0.839 adjusted PPP. Every single team that has played Kentucky this year has posted their worst offensive numbers in that game, with Montana State managing just 0.398 PPP in an 86-28 blowout.

If you take a look at the tempo stats for UK, you can see just how difficult it is for opponents to limit their effectiveness. On the year, the Wildcats have an adjusted tempo that is in the bottom third of Division I, with an average of 65.2 adjusted possessions per game. In terms of actual possession length, Kentucky’s 16.1 second average on the offensive end is 42nd shortest in D-I. Against Kentucky’s defense, the average possession length is 19.8 seconds, which is the 23rd longest. Opponents have tried to slow the game down by being patient on offense, but Kentucky is so explosive on the other end that they can still score points in a hurry.

Meet the Wildcats

There is never a shortage of talent in Lexington, and that is certainly the case this season. With Aaron Harrison (No. 2), Andrew Harrison (No. 5), and Willie Cauley-Stein (No. 15) all deciding to return for another season at UK, Coach John Calipari suddenly found himself with more great players than he’d planned on having. The team boasts nine McDonald’s All-Americans and eight returning players, three of them starters.

With the abundance of riches on his bench, Calipari decided to test out a platoon system in their August trip to the Bahamas. Named the Blue Platoon and the White Platoon, Calipari’s two stacked groups of five provide him with the chance to provide complete “reinforcements” — he prefers that term to “subs” — at every media timeout. With the second platoon easily being skilled enough to start at any school in the country, the Wildcats have waves of talent that allow them to keep their energy levels high as they wear down opponents over 40 minutes.

The Blue Platoon starts the game, and consists of the Harrison twins, Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress (No. 22), and Karl-Anthony Towns (No. 12). Andrew Harrison runs the point, and is coming off a season in which he struggled with turnovers and oftentimes made his frustration visible on the court. As a sophomore, his turnover rate is still north of 20%, but he carries himself with more confidence, and still dishes out dimes on nearly 29% of the buckets scored when he’s on the floor.

His brother, Andrew, is the Blue Platoon’s shooting guard. Andrew instantly became a Kentucky legend with his clutch three-point shooting in last year’s NCAA tournament, which saved the team in consecutive wins over Louisville, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This year, he’s only taken 13 threes, but has connected on 38.5% of them.

In addition to his three-point prowess, Andrew is easily able to get inside and score, thanks to another gear that makes him look like he’s just gliding with the ball. He has good body control, so he can absorb contact in the air and still make a shot, and he also scores a few fast break buckets each game thanks to his quick hands on the perimeter.

Marcus Lee is one of many UK shot blockers
(Photo credit: Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

Inside, Poythress is one of the team’s old, grizzled veterans, despite being only a junior. He has great hops and timing to block shots, and will often wipe away an opponent’s fast break opportunity by racing back and swatting the layup attempt from behind. The 6’8″ big man has missed a pair of games this year due to illness, and is currently shooting just 35.5% from the field, but his defensive contributions and solid rebounding still make him a factor in every game.

The other old man in the Blue Platoon is Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot junior who had to watch the team’s Final Four run after suffering an ankle injury in the Sweet 16. That injury led to this awesome outfit at the title game, and it also encouraged Cauley-Stein to return for another season, despite being projected in the first round of the NBA draft. He runs the floor well in transition, moves well laterally when defending the post, and provides an intimidating, shot-blocking presence down low.

The 6’11” freshman Towns rounds out the Blue Platoon, and he’s already made a huge impact on both the Wildcats and the national basketball scene. He currently has the nation’s second-best block rate, as he swats more than 18% of the two-point shots attempted when he’s on the court. He also rebounds well on both sides of the court, with his offensive and defensive rates both ranked in the Top 50. One of the most impressive things about his game has been his ability to look to the opposite wing when doubled in the post, as he has repeatedly set up teammates for wide-open threes with his quick, timely passes.

The White Platoon is run by 5’9″ freshman point guard Tyler Ulis (No. 3). Although he’s the smallest player by far and has only played seven collegiate games, Ulis has been absolutely phenomenal. He is a lightning-quick pest on defense, practically living in the shirt of the opponent unlucky enough to be guarded by him. He has a steal rate that is ranked in the Top 50 nationally, but he’s also been responsible for turnovers by causing five-second violations and forcing bad passes.

On offense, he’s just as fast with the ball as he is on defense, and can quickly get a shot off, both in catch-and-shoot and pull-up situations. Although he’s taken just 14 attempts on the year, Ulis is the team’s most accurate three-point shooter with a 57.1% mark.

Devin Booker is a three-point marksman
(Photo credit: James Crisp/Associated Press)

Although Ulis has the best mark so far this season, the team’s best three-point shooter is probably fellow freshman Devin Booker (No. 1). At 6’6″, roughly two-thirds of his shots come from behind the arc, but he’s also shown the ability to slash inside and hit a nice floater when defenses play him too tightly on the perimeter. Booker had a bumpy start on three-point shooting this year, which culminated in an especially tough 1-for-6 night against Kansas in the Champions Classic. Since then, he’s been practically automatic, knocking down 13-of-19 triples in the last four games.

Sophomore Marcus Lee (No. 00) is a fantastic shot blocker with great hops. He moves really well on defense for a 6’9″ guy, which allows him to provide pressure even when his man floats out to the perimeter. He hasn’t seen quite as many minutes as the rest of the White Platoon, a situation that will likely continue until his free-throw shooting improves. Currently just 1-for-8 from the line, Lee won’t be able to play late in close games if teams can target him for fouls.

Free-throw troubles are also a concern for 7-foot sophomore Dakari Johnson (No. 44). After a promising start in two exhibition games, where he made 7-of-9 at the stripe, Johnson has made just 60.5% of his free throws during the regular season. Last year, he made just 45%. That’s a big problem for a guy who draws fouls at the eighth-highest rate in all of Division I hoops.

Although Johnson’s free-throw shooting hasn’t improved, he does look much better running the floor in transition this year, and is still a shot-blocking and rebounding machine in the middle. Teams have tried double and triple teams already this season, but he’s showed patience and poise against the pressure, and is still often able to score in those situations, thanks to a nice little hook shot.

Freshman Trey Lyles (No. 41) is the final member of the White Platoon and the ten-man rotation. Named Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana last year, Lyles has already showed off a versatile skill set in his short collegiate career. At 6’10”, he’s still able to knock down outside shots, and can move well enough on defense to guard on the perimeter. Lyles has shown great body control for some impressive shots around the paint, is easily able to create his own shot in face-up situations, and of course can post up down low.

Keys to the Game

Even with Taylor at the point, Texas would have needed to execute extremely well for 40 minutes against an incredibly talented and deep team in one of the most hostile environments in the country, just to have a shot at escaping with a win. Without their point guard, it’s not a stretch to say that the Longhorns will need to play a nearly-perfect game to claim a massive road upset tonight. The four keys below are just a few of the many areas in which Texas will need to execute.

1. Dictate the tempo – With reinforcements coming in roughly every four minutes, Kentucky always has fresh legs late in the game. That depth also allows them to play high-pressure defense for 40 minutes, which wears on their opponents throughout the game. Add in the fact that the Longhorns are thin in the backcourt, have a pair of frontcourt players in Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh who will likely struggle against UK’s bigs, and that Texas is playing its third game in six days, and you can see why Texas needs to limit the possessions tonight. If the Longhorns have poor shot selection and don’t exercise patience on the offensive end, it’s going to cost them dearly in the form of fatigue late in the game.

2. Protect the paint – Although Kentucky has some three-point shooters, the bulk of their scoring comes down low. Texas is well equipped to give the Wildcats a battle in the paint, and they will need to make it very difficult to score down low for UK. If the Longhorns can force Kentucky to take mostly jumpers, they should be able to slow down the highly-efficient Kentucky offense at least a little bit.

3. Limit second chances – Forcing Kentucky into taking jump shots won’t make much of a difference it the Longhorns don’t win their defensive rebounds. Kentucky has the nation’s best offensive rebounding percentage, as they have reclaimed nearly half of their missed shots this season. If Texas allows UK extra opportunities and easy putbacks tonight, the chances for an upset will be slim.

4. Take care of the ball – The Kentucky defense is unrelenting, as Providence quickly learned in their loss at Rupp this weekend. The Friars did an excellent job dictating the pace of the game and forcing the Wildcats to take more jump shots, which allowed them to hold a lead into the second half. Everything quickly fell apart for PC, though, as the Wildcats forced a flurry of turnovers and scored fast break points at will.

Kentucky’s stable of huge big men allow their guards to provide extra pressure on the perimeter, since the big men can easily clean up any dribble penetration with a blocked shot. Add in the fact that the Harrisons, Ulis, and Booker also all have quick hands, and it’s very difficult for opposing guards to hang on to the ball. Compounding the problem for offenses is the fact that Kentucky’s big men are all athletic enough to switch ball screens on the perimeter. Combine all of those factors, and it is very difficult for teams to find much success against the Wildcats.

The Longhorns have recently had issues with sloppy play and turnovers against defenses not nearly as frustrating as that of Kentucky. If Javan Felix and his teammates cannot take care of the ball tonight, an intriguing matchup of Top 10 teams could quickly turn into a rout.

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