Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
Just one month ago, fans of Texas and Kansas were eagerly looking forward to tonight’s match-up. Their teams were undefeated and ranked in the top two slots nationally. The winner of the sole match-up between the two schools would likely have the inside track to a Big 12 title and a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. Everything seemed to be aligning for an epic showdown.
Things certainly haven’t gone according to plan. First, Kansas stumbled with a road loss against a horribly depleted Tennessee team, propelling the Longhorns to their first-ever No. 1 ranking in school history. Texas was only able to hold on to that spot for one week before hitting a horrendous skid where they lost four out of six games.
After all those speedbumps, February 8th is finally here. But the day that was once circled on so many calendars is now just another Monday in conference play. The game has lost most of its luster, with Texas sliding down the polls and the bracket projections. The Jayhawks hold a commanding 2.5-game lead in the conference standings, and will likely cruise to yet another Big 12 title.
But for Texas, this game is huge. It’s not big because of seeding or even important for the conference standings. The Longhorns desperately need a win tonight to restore some confidence. It’s been crystal clear on the faces of the Texas players for the last few weeks — this team is looking for answers, and they are getting desperate that they have been unable to find them. What better way to re-instill some swagger than a gut-check win over the nation’s top team?
By the numbers
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, that will not be an easy task. The Jayhawks come into the game with the 2nd-most efficient offense and 4th-most efficient defense in the country. Kansas is just one of two teams that has efficiency rankings in the top ten on both sides of the ball, with the other being Syracuse. That all-around dominance gives the Jayhawks a differential of +0.361 points per possession. That may seem like a small number, but when you multiply it out by 60 or 70 possessions per game, you quickly realize just how good Bill Self‘s team has been.
The main reason KU is so efficient on offense is that they are loaded with talent from top to bottom. They can score in a variety of ways, and from anywhere on the floor. If you take away their inside game, they kill you from long range. Sell out to stop the perimeter attack, and you’re decimated by the frontcourt. The Jayhawks are hitting 41% of their threes on the year, and nearly 50% from the field. It’s certainly a matter of picking your poison when trying to defend Kansas.
When Texas has the ball, they are going to have to deal with a defense that simply does not allow teams to score inside. For the Longhorns, that can mean all sorts of trouble. It’s no secret that Texas has been absolutely stymied when opponents force them to settle for long-range jumpers, so Rick Barnes will have to find a way for his team to attack the stingy interior defense. Unfortunately, the ‘Hawks are 12th in the nation when it comes to blocks, typically because big man Cole Aldrich is often waiting as a secondary defender to swat away any ill-conceived shots.
Meet the Jayhawks
Aldrich is not just a phenomenal shot blocker. He also is a beast on the boards, and is the perfect compliment down low for Kansas’ excellent outside shooting. Self often has Cole setting screens in the high post or on the perimeter, and his height makes it very easy for him to catch a pass on the pick-and-roll before flushing it home. The only real knock on Aldrich’s offensive game is that he has a bizarre shooting motion that makes it far too easy to defend him on pick-and-pop plays.
As we’ve already mentioned, Aldrich gets a ton of blocks when he rotates over on help defense. That leaves the Jayhawks susceptible to dribble penetration by guards who then dump it off to open players on the blocks. Last year in Lawrence, Texas rode this strategy to an early lead. If the Longhorns can actually capitalize on the easy one- and two-foot looks they have been missing in the last few weeks, that type of attack should keep them in the game tonight.
The other big-time star joining Aldrich in the starting five is All-American senior Sherron Collins. He’s an incredibly quick guard with really long range, so teams have to decide whether they prefer to give up the blow-by when they crowd him, or give him looks beyond the arc when they sag to prevent the drive. He’s the team’s leading scorer with more than 15 points per game, but he also is a good distributor, logging more than four assists each night. Quite a few of those assists come when he drives the lane and kicks it out past the collapsing D, resulting in a wide-open three from one of Kansas’ many long-range gunners.
Collins is also very strong for a guy his size, so he’s able to finish through contact at the rim. Texas really can’t afford to have their frontcourt in foul trouble tonight, so if they do have to burn some fouls when Collins is driving, they have to make sure he doesn’t finish for an and-one.
Brady Morningstar has once again cracked the starting lineup after missing the first month of the season due to a DUI arrest in October. He’s a lockdown defender that will give the Longhorn guards a headache all night. As if his defense wasn’t enough, Morningstar is a capable ballhandler that can allow Collins to work himself open off the ball, and he’s also a heck of a three-point shooter. He’s making nearly 45% of his attempts from long range, and will surely make some daggers against the Longhorns tonight.
Joining Collins and Morningstar in the backcourt is freshman phenom Xavier Henry. At 6’6″, Henry is anything but just a guard, and he will make plays all over the court tonight. He’s left-handed, which always seems to make players harder to defend, and he can shoot from anywhere. Give him space, and he’ll calmly knock down a three. Cut off his driving lane, and he’ll pull up to kiss it off the glass. Give him an uninterrupted path to the basket, and he’ll throw down a dunk that will show up on Sportscenter’s Top Ten after the game.
In addition, Henry’s tall frame allows him to get many more rebounds than your typical guard. And against a Texas team that often runs three-guard looks and sometimes uses Gary Johnson in the power forward role, Henry is likely going to have a good night on the glass. He’s averaging four boards a game from the swingman role, and there’s a very good chance he’ll exceed that tonight.
The only forward in the starting lineup for KU is Marcus Morris, one half of the twin duo from Philadelphia. Like brother Markieff Morris, Marcus added about twenty pounds in the offseason and his inside game has improved as a result. He’s finishing more baskets inside and is pulling down 6.3 boards per game, second only to Aldrich. He’s always had three-point range — although it’s been overshadowed on a team with shooters like Collins and Morningstar — but Marcus has also developed his midrange game this year. Now he has a nice baseline jumper to compliment his skill set, and it’s typically good out to fourteen feet.
Brother Markieff is coming off the bench for about fifteen minutes per game, but isn’t quite as polished as Marcus. He still has a tendency to pick up dumb, frustration fouls that limit his minutes, and his offensive skill set isn’t as refined as his brother’s. Markieff is averaging six points and five boards per game, so he should still make an impact in his time on the court tonight.
Guard Tyshawn Taylor has been relegated to the bench since Morningstar’s return to the starting lineup, and at one point he was apparently so frustrated that he voiced a desire to transfer on his Facebook. The post was immediately removed and Self was testy with reporters who brought it up, but questions still linger about the chemistry in the locker room between the guards.
When Taylor is on the floor, he’s a very quick guard who can speed past defenders off the dribble. The key is to give him enough space that he’s forced to beat you with a jump shot. Like Collins, Taylor is a combo guard who earns his fair share of assists (3.3 in 22 minutes per game), but is not as good of a jump shooter. He’s still serviceable in the midrange and behind the arc, but if the Longhorns can keep Taylor in front of them and put a little bit of pressure on him while shooting, it will certainly help their chances tonight.
Tyrel Reed is the only other Jayhawk who plays significant minutes, and he’s another guard that is deadly from long range. He’s making more than 44% of his three-point attempts this year, so Texas must always be aware of his location when he’s on the court.
Keys to the game
While the Kansas half-court offense is highly efficient and can beat you in a variety of ways, the Jayhawks also earn a lot of points in transition. They don’t force a ton of turnovers — Pomeroy has them ranked just 157th in that category — but they do push the tempo off of rebounds and made buckets. Texas must limit fast break points, and has to set up their defense quickly enough to limit the secondary break points as well.
In addition, the Longhorns have to break through the interior D. The Jayhawks are nearly impenetrable inside, and Texas is not the most reliable outside shooting team. If the Horns can attack like the rim like they were in the second half of the OU game, perhaps they can create foul trouble for Aldrich and the Morris twins. And of course, we all know that consistent inside play will open up the midrange and outside games, as well.
Finally, the most simple of our keys to the game is that Texas must execute. During this tough three-week stretch, the Longhorns have been plagued by simple errors, be it missed shots from point-blank range, stupid turnovers, or poor shot selection and possessions. I’ve purposely left free-throw shooting off this list, because it’s perfectly clear that this will not get better any time soon.
Obviously, if the Longhorns shoot 37% from the line again, as they did on Saturday, they have absolutely no chance to win tonight. But if they hover around their season average of 61% and actually do the other things correctly, they should be within striking distance during the final minutes of the game. And for a team that has struggled as much as Texas has lately, that’s pretty much all you can ask for.
While Kansas is a very scary team that plays well on both sides of the ball, they are certainly beatable. They were taken to overtime in road games against Kansas State and Colorado, and even let Nebraska — the worst team in the league — hang around with them at Allen Fieldhouse. The Frank Erwin Center is rarely a home-court advantage, but when Kansas comes to town, it always is. The Longhorns haven’t played very well as of late, but they have the talent needed to win this game and perhaps enough desperation to play like they cannot lose.
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