United Spirit Arena | Lubbock, TX | Tip: 6 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
Fresh off a heartbreaking overtime loss to Connecticut on Saturday, Texas jumps right into conference play with a road game against Texas Tech tonight. Although United Spirit Arena seems to claim one ranked opponent as an upset victim every season, the Longhorns have to be happy with the relatively easy start the conference schedule-makers afforded them. The Red Raiders sit at just .500 heading into this game, while Texas’ second opponent, Oklahoma, was picked to finish near the bottom of the league by every major publication.
On paper, the Red Raiders should have a much better record at this point. They returned a solid nucleus of players in John Roberson, Mike Singletary, and D’walyn Roberts, but have stumbled through the season thus far, losing games to the likes of North Texas and TCU. Roberts, who was troubled by ankle problems at the end of last season, missed six more games in November, and has seen limited minutes since his return.
By the numbers
As usual, Texas Tech is a well-disciplined team that relies on constant motion and cutting to earn open looks. The Red Raiders take nearly 75% of their shots from inside the arc, a stat that is even more notable when put in a national context. Out of 345 Division I basketball teams, there are only 24 teams that take less threes than Tech.
That bodes well for the Longhorns, who just so happen to have the 2nd-best two-point defense in the country. Texas is holding opponents to just 38.5% shooting from inside the three-point line. To date, the Red Raiders are making more than 48% of their two-point shots. If the Texas defense can impose its will inside tonight, it could be a very long game for the Tech offense.
The Red Raiders are also very consistent with the basketball. They only turn it over on about 18% of their possessions, significantly better than the national average of nearly 21 percent. Against a Longhorn team that doesn’t force many turnovers, that trend should hold in tonight’s game.
One trend Texas hopes to end in tonight’s game is an inability to secure defensive rebounds. Against Connecticut, the Longhorns allowed the Huskies to reclaim more than 43% of their misses, and those extra possesions resulted in a tough loss. Fortunately for Texas, the Red Raiders are nowhere near as talented on the glass. Tech is ranked in the bottom half of D-I basketball with just a 32.1% offensive rebounding mark.
Meet the Red Raiders
The top four scorers for Tech are all seniors, while the team’s fifth-leading scorer, Robert Lewandowski, is a junior. Since Coach Pat Knight has his team running an up-tempo attack this season, with the Red Raiders seeing 71.5 possessions per contest, the team essentially runs 10 deep.
The core group for Tech is made up of six players who were major contributors last season — Singletary, Roberson, Lewandowski, Brad Reese, David Tairu, and Roberts. For more on those returning players, you’ll want to check out last season’s game preview.
The newcomers are led by Jaye Crockett, a freshman forward from New Mexico. He redshirted last season, giving him an extra year to bulk up for the rigors of Big 12 play. As a result, he’s made a quick impact in his first season, chipping in nearly six points and four rebounds a game despite averaging just 14 minutes.
Reserve point guard Javarez Willis is just 5’11″, and he’s taken a winding road to get to Lubbock. Coming out of Louisiana, Willis was rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals.com, but failed to land offers from any major schools besides Tech. After signing with Coach Knight, Willis wasn’t able to academically qualify, and had to spend the last season at a prep school.
Now, finally a member of the Red Raider squad, Willis is providing about 15 minutes off the bench. He still needs a lot of work on ball control to be a viable point guard option, but has the luxury of learning the role as an understudy to a very experienced cast.
Paul Cooper is a juco transfer from Gulf Coast CC, the same school that produced fellow Tech forward Brad Reese. Cooper is only playing a little more than 10 minutes per game, but like Willis, he is building for next season. He’s clearly making the effort to improve, as he shed nearly 50 pounds after transferring from Gulf Coast. With more experience, he could make a splash in 2011-12.
Keys to the game
On paper, this is a game that Texas should easily win. The Red Raiders rely on mid-range jumpers and slashing to the rim, two methods of attack that the Longhorns have done a great job rebuffing all season long. There’s also no question that the Texas roster has more talent than the Tech one. But as we mentioned, United Spirit Arena has seen its share of upsets over the last few seasons. Add in the fact that the Red Raiders are experienced, while the Longhorns are fairly young, and perhaps the result isn’t so pre-determined.
When facing a disciplined, experienced team, everything boils down to fundamentals. Those types of teams aren’t going to beat themselves, so the Longhorns can’t do dumb things like waste possessions with turnovers. If Texas can just execute and avoid a letdown game after the emotionally-draining effort against UConn, they should return to Austin with a conference win.
The most important fundamental for Texas tonight will be good team defense. With Tech constantly moving off the ball, it takes just a split second to lose a man and give him a wide-open look. If the Longhorns can talk it out, switching and helping as needed, they should be able to frustrate the Red Raiders like they did in Austin last season. Fail to do so, and it will be more like last season’s second half in Lubbock, when the Red Raiders quickly erased a double-digit Texas lead and nearly came back for a victory.
The Longhorns also need to exploit their advantage inside. Outside of the 6’10″ Lewandowski, the Red Raiders don’t consistently play anyone who is taller than 6’7″. Texas would be wise to pound the ball inside to Tristan Thompson and let Jordan Hamilton attack the paint off the dribble. Hamilton seemed hesitant to do so against the tall, stout interior D of Connecticut, so perhaps a breakout game against a less-imposing Tech frontcourt will increase his confidence heading into conference play.
Finally, we’ll be looking for a big game from Dogus Balbay. This isn’t really a key to the game, per se, as the Longhorns can easily win this game with a quiet performance from Balbay. But Dogus had the best offensive game of his career against Tech last January, so we’re hoping to see more slashing from the Turkish guard tonight.