Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 1 P.M. CST | TV: ESPNU
Five hours to go. Just five hours until Texas basketball is back. Five hours until the tip of a season that could go down as one of the best – if not the best – in school history.
This year, Coach Barnes and the Longhorns start play with the CBE Classic, a tournament they won back in 2005 thanks in part to a LaMarcus Aldridge block at the buzzer against West Virginia in the semis. The CBE Classic is one of those events where the first round games actually have no bearing on the true “tournament” portion, which is guaranteed to involve the four marquee teams next week in Kansas City, regardless of this week’s results.
First up for Texas is Cal-Irvine, a team that finished 12-19 last season and placed fourth in the Big West conference. While today will be more about the Longhorns trying different lineups than having to survive an upset bid, the visiting Anteaters will still get our full game-preview treatment…
By the numbers
Last year, Cal-Irvine was an interesting team statistically. They were 4th in the nation from behind the arc, hitting an amazing 40.7% of their attempts from long range. But once the ‘Eaters stepped inside the three-point line, they could hardly buy a basket. The team’s 43.9% shooting on two-point attempts was good for 301st in the country, better than only 33 other D-1 schools. That disparity made it incredibly easy for teams to play pressure defense on the perimeter, where UCI lacked playmakers who could shake the D and get to the rim.
Besides their long-range marksmanship, the ‘Eaters also hung their hat on excellent free throw shooting. UCI made 76% of their free-throw attempts last season, but unfortunately did not get to the line often enough to make that matter. In their 2009-10 season opener on Friday night, the Anteaters made a more concerted effort to get to the charity stripe, and it paid off. UCI made 25-of-33 from the line in their 82-54 victory over the D-III La Verne Leopards, a vast improvement from the 17 attempts they averaged per game last year.
Cal-Irvine also was excellent at controlling the ball last season, turning it over on just 17.8% of their possessions. While that number may seem high, it was good enough to be ranked 36th nationally according to hoops stat-head Ken Pomeroy. Unfortunately for Coach Pat Douglass, the Anteaters failed to exploit their ball control in the season opener, posting 13 turnovers with a differential of zero.
The 2008-09 edition of the UCI Anteaters played a slow-down style of basketball in an attempt to minimize the chances for opponents to expose a leaky defense. Their 63.5 possessions per game was 286th in the nation, while their defense gave up a nauseating 1.073 points per possession, 274th in D-I. A commitment to this slower pace of play may mean that the Longhorns will win by a smaller margin today, but the key number to look at in this one will be Texas’ offensive efficiency rating.
Meet the ‘Eaters
While graduation stole away Brett Lauer, who hit more than 50% of his 125 attempts behind the arc last season, UCI still has guards who are threats from long range. Senior shooting guard Michael Hunter scored 14 points in just 14 minutes of play in the season opener, including 2-of-4 from behind the arc. He’s incredibly quick, but lacks the skills to shake defenders and get to the rack. If Texas can limit his effectiveness from three-point range, it will severely cripple the UCI offense.
A pair of Slovakian JuCo transfers will likely add some meat to the frontcourt for the Anteaters this season. Pavol Losonsky made the start on Friday night, scoring twelve points to go with five rebounds. Peter Simek, his teammate from Butte College, played 19 minutes off the bench and scored nine, adding six boards. While neither will be appearing on any All-American lists this season, this pair of big men should serve as a nice early-season benchmark by which to measure the new, deeper Texas frontcourt.
The biggest test for that frontcourt, however, will come in the form of butterball forward Eric Wise. He’s only 6-5, but his rotund frame allows him to throw weight around in the post as he fights to get to the rim. He shot only 45% from the field last year, so it would be wise for the Longhorns to simply dare Wise to knock down longer shots.
Junior Darren Moore is listed as a small forward, but was credited in Friday night’s box score with a start as the second guard. Coming off a season in which he tore his patellar tendon and played only six games, Moore started out with a solid twelve-point performance against the Leopards, scoring half of his points from the free-throw line. While he’s going to provide a much-needed offensive boost for UCI this season, perhaps the most important thing that Moore brings to the table is quality defense, something his team sorely lacks.
What to look for
As mentioned earlier, the true test for the Texas offense won’t be how many points they put on the board, but how effective they are with each possession. Last year’s team sometimes seemed allergic to shooting, but what kept them in games was the fact that their offense was at least efficient. Scoring 1.124 points per possession, last year’s Longhorns actually finished in the top 40 nationally in offensive efficiency. With a more experienced and talented team on the floor this year, fans are hoping that these already-solid numbers can be improved upon.
With so much talent and depth, the list of questions surrounding this team is endless. Is Texas going to rely on a three-guard lineup, or go with the more traditional two-man backcourt? How many minutes can Dexter Pittman provide after another season of offseason conditioning? Is this the year that Damion James breaks out and becomes the unquestioned leader? Can Varez Ward build on the excellent game he had against Duke in the NCAAs? Has Dogus Balbay developed a shot to go with his defense? Which freshmen will leap to first-team status, and which will provide a spark from the bench?
While those are just a handful of questions fans will be looking to answer today, the biggest mystery this season is how Coach Barnes will dish out playing time on a team with so many players capable of producing on the court. The freshman class of Jordan Hamilton, Avery Bradley, and Shawn Williams is too good to leave on the bench, but how often — and where — will they play with Texas returning seniors Pittman, James, and Justin Mason? Add in newly-eligible J’Covan Brown and Alexis Wangmene, who is back from a medical redshirt, and its quickly apparent how the minute math could get a bit dicey.
Fill the Drum
We know it’s football season. And yes, Colt McCoy has the Longhorns just three wins away from a likely berth in the BCS National Championship Game. But that doesn’t mean that a city this size can’t support two championship-caliber teams. Unfortunately, the people of Austin seem to disagree, as there are still tickets available for today’s season opener.
If you’re in town, I highly advise you drop the couple of bucks it costs to buy a mezzanine ticket and see a very special team start a very special season. As for the out-of-towners, be sure to tune in to ESPNU this afternoon to catch the tip.
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