Sam Houston State Bearkats (3-3) at Texas Longhorns (3-2)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: Longhorn Network
LRT Consecutive Game #226

The Texas Longhorns return to action on the mainland tonight, hosting Sam Houston State at the Frank Erwin Center. After a pair of losses to open play in the Maui Invitational’s championship rounds, the Longhorns bounced back with a convincing win over a shorthanded Mississippi State squad. Texas hopes to build on that win tonight and establish some momentum this week before heading into a very tough pair of non-conference match-ups against Georgetown and UCLA.

Sam Houston State comes to Austin riding a two-game winning streak, having knocked off Liberty and UC-Irvine at home in the sub-regional round of the Legends Classic. This road trip to a big-time college arena will certainly not intimidate the Bearkats, as they have already battled Arkansas down to the wire in Fayetteville before being blown out by Indiana at Assembly Hall.

By the numbers

The Bearkats have struggled mightily on offense so far this year, scoring just 0.868 points per possession, a number that ranks 301st out of 347 Division I teams. A big part of this problem is Sam Houston State’s dedication to the perimeter. The team has taken nearly 39% of its shots from behind the arc, despite knocking down only 29% of those long range attempts.

Defensively, the team has bounced back against lesser competition after getting crushed by Indiana. The Hoosiers posted an insane 1.47 points per possession in their 99-45 win over Sam Houston State, but the Bearkats were able to hold Liberty and UC-Irvine to just .754 and .853 PPP, respectively. Although the Flames and Anteaters aren’t high-quality competition, it’s still impressive that the Bearkats were able to dominate the defensive glass against those two teams and turn most possessions into one-shot trips.

One number that is especially troubling for the Bearkats as they prepare to face Texas is their defensive free-throw rate. Against Arkansas and Indiana, Sam Houston State’s defensive FTRs were 62.8% and 83.0%, respectively. FTR measures how often a team gets to the line, so it is apparent that against bigger, more talented teams, the Bearkats were constantly being whistled for fouls. Although Texas has done poorly from the line, Sam Houston State still cannot afford to give the Longhorns as many free throws as they gave to their other major-conference opponents.

Darius Gatson leads a balanced Bearkat offense
(Photo credit: Alan Petersime/Associated Press)

Meet the Bearkats

Sam Houston State has used a deep rotation so far this season, with 11 players averaging at least 11 minutes. Senior guard Darius Gatson (No. 1) is the team leader in minutes, and even he only averages 25.3 per game.

Typically, that kind of substitution pattern would be indicative of a run-and-gun, high-pressure squad, but that isn’t the case with the Bearkats. Coach Jason Hooten is trying to incorporate five junior college newcomers this season, while hoping to replace the loss of three starters from last year’s team. While the results have been mixed, so far the team is using a balanced attack, having a different leading scorer in each of their six games.

Gatson was the leading scorer in the team’s first game, pouring in 20 against Arkansas. For the year, he’s also leading the team in points, averaging 9.5 per game. At just 5’11”, he is a bit undersized to face most major-conference opponents. However, with Myck Kabongo still unavailable for the Longhorns, Gatson will be squaring off with Javan Felix, also an undersized guard.

Swingman DeMarcus Gatlin (No. 11) was one of three Bearkats who started against Texas in last year’s game, shooting just 3-of-10 from the field in 35 minutes of action. He’s is the team’s leading retuning scorer from 2011-12, but is averaging just 6.7 points this season.

Michael Holyfield (No. 35) is the team’s other returning starter and its only true big man. At 6’11”, he is typically the anchor of Sam Houston State’s four-out, one-in look, and is really their only option for posting up opponents. He has been struggling with foul problems all season long, an issue that has plagued him for most of his career. He fouled out against Texas after playing just 26 minutes last season, and he’s averaging more than seven fouls per 40 minutes this year.

With Holyfield filling the lane, junior forward James Thomas (No. 20) is the closest thing to a 4 the Bearkats have. He’s often used to set high screens and then roll to the basket. Although Thomas is just 6’5″, he has played very tough against the bigger lineups of Arkansas and Indiana, scrapping for every point and rebound inside.

Junior guard Jeremy McKay (No. 10) has started all six games for Sam Houston State, but is still struggling to find his shot. He’s made just 28.6% of his three-point attempts and only 27.7% of his shots from inside the arc. McKay showed a nice burst off the dribble against Indiana, but his inability to knock down long shots makes it easier for defenses to sag off of him and take away that driving threat.

Former walk-on Marquel McKinney (No. 2) has earned one start so far in his sophomore campaign, and he has proven to be the team’s only real three-point threat. He’s knocked down more than 40% of his long range attempts, and is third on the team with eight points per game. At 6’3″, McKinney also gives Coach Hooten a little more size in a backcourt that features two guards under six feet.

Forward Terrance Motley (No. 24) has played well after missing the first two games of the season for undisclosed reasons. Despite coming off the bench, he’s leading the team with six boards per game, and is second on the squad in scoring. Like Holyfield, Motley is averaging more than seven fouls per 40 minutes of hoops, so the Longhorns will want to attack him and hope to pile up the whistles.

Coach Hooten has another promising option on the bench in Nathaniel Mason (No. 33), a 6’4″ wing who transferred from Des Moines Area CC. He showed some nice driving ability and knocked down a three against the Hoosiers, but he’s only 25% from behind the arc on the year.

A trio of guards round out the deep rotation, with Aaron Harwell (No. 5), Paul Baxter (No. 21), and Will Bond (No. 32) combining to average about 37 minutes per game. Baxter is a freshman from Austin’s Bowie High, and the son of former Longhorn Ron Baxter. Harwell was a big contributor last year after transferring from Centenary, but has a limited role this season. Bond arrived in Huntsville from Trinity Valley CC, where he was a three-point marksman. This season, he’s hit more than 38% of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Keys to the game

1) Hang on to the ball – The Longhorns have been absolutely atrocious when it comes to turnovers this season, coughing it up on 29.4% of their possessions against D-I opponents. Even in their shocking loss to D-II Chaminade, the Horns ended 23.4% of their possessions with a turnover. Although the Bearkats aren’t known for a high-pressure D, many of the Longhorn turnovers this season have been unforced errors. With points and wins hard to come by on this young season, Texas simply cannot afford to waste possessions.

2) Dominate the glass – In their two Maui losses, the Longhorns were essentially shut out on the offensive boards. Chaminade and USC claimed 71.8% and 80% of the Texas missed shots, respectively, limiting the Horns to a seemingly endless string of one-shot possessions. Fortunately, Sam Houston State has had problems keeping their major-conference opponents from dominating the boards. Texas needs to exploit that size advantage and own the glass on both ends of the floor.

3) Get Sheldon McClellan going – Although McClellan had a nice game against Mississippi State, his performances have been streaky so far this year. Sheldon has appeared to get frustrated easily and not always embrace the role of go-to scorer that the team needs him to accept. Sam Houston State gave Texas a lot of trouble last year by doubling down on the baseline and trapping along the boundaries. McClellan can’t let that defensive approach frustrate him and take him out of the game this time around.