Allen Fieldhouse | Lawrence, KS | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #245
There is no doubt that the suits at ESPN expected a little more glitz when they booked College GameDay at Allen Fieldhouse for tonight’s tilt between Texas and Kansas. The Longhorns were expected to be part of a deep Big 12 pack this year, chasing the perennial preseason favorite Jayhawks. That was long before an NCAA committee suspended Texas guard Myck Kabongo for two-thirds of the season, and well before Kansas lost three straight games for the first time in nearly eight years.
Texas scuttled to a 2-8 start in conference play without their sophomore point guard, yet still managed to have these very Jayhawks on the ropes when they hosted them at the Erwin Center on January 19th. Although it was clear that this young Texas team could compete with the best of the Big 12, it consistently fell short in crunch time. Two days after that valiant effort against Kansas, any optimism was tempered when sophomore forward Jonathan Holmes broke his hand against Oklahoma.
On Wednesday night, the Longhorns finally welcomed back both Holmes and Kabongo against Iowa State. But thanks to foul trouble, neither one of the returning stars were even on the court when the game was decided in a second overtime. Kabongo and Holmes combined to play only 53 minutes in a game that was 50 minutes long, as freshman big man Connor Lammert put forth the best effort of his young career. Most importantly, Sheldon McClellan finally stepped up and carried the Longhorns, scoring all 10 Texas points in the decisive overtime period.
While the odds are incredibly long for a Texas win at Allen Fieldhouse tonight, there is no reason to think that the Longhorns stand no chance. Kansas has looked incredibly vulnerable this season, while the Texas offense finally started clicking when it was at full strength on Wednesday night. The 1.097 points that the Horns scored per possession was their second-best offensive performance of the season, and the fifth-best showing by an Iowa State opponent this year. The Longhorns will still have to execute incredibly well to have a shot at an upset tonight, but fans now at least have a reason to hold on to some shreds of hope.
Meet the Jayhawks
For an in-depth look at the Kansas roster, check out LRT’s game preview from the first meeting between these two teams.
The first match-up
On January 19th, the Longhorns used stifling defense to keep Kansas in check during the first twenty minutes, limiting the Jayhawks to just 26 points on 28% shooting. Ben McLemore took just three shots in the first half, perhaps still struggling with the lingering effects of an ankle sprain suffered five days prior against Baylor.
The Longhorns made no effort to crash the offensive glass, but still managed to own the rebounding advantage heading to the locker room. That edge on the boards was especially surprising after Holmes picked up two fouls in the first 56 seconds of the game and spent the remainder of the half on the bench.
In the second half, Holmes made an immediate impact. He scored seven quick points that fueled a 14-4 run for Texas to open the frame, as the Longhorns took full advantage of miscues by the Jayhawks. Kansas turned it over six times in the first five minutes, after having coughed it up only four times in the entire first half.
Texas built a lead as large as 11 points in the second half, and still led by 10 with just over 11 minutes to play. But with Kansas taking better care of the basketball, the Longhorns once again found it difficult to score in a half-court game. McClellan became the only Horn who could put the ball in the basket, scoring all six of Texas’ points in a painful stretch of nearly eight minutes of offensive stagnation.
With Kansas switching to a four-guard look in the final six minutes, Naadir Tharpe took over ballhandling duties and freed up Elijah Johnson to play in his more natural role as a two-guard. The Jayhawks erased Texas’ six-point lead, holding the Horns to only two more baskets as Kansas poured on the points in crunch time. KU outscored Texas 17-4 down the stretch, moving to 4-0 in the Big 12 with a gutsy road win.
Even with the offensive problems and the close calls against both Iowa State and Texas, Kansas maintained its steady march through the conference. Two days later, the Jayhawks went into Bramlage Coliseum and continued their dominance over in-state rival K-State. A comfortable home win over Oklahoma preceded a road win against West Virginia, where the Jayhawks again struggled to hang on to the ball and let the Mountaineers claw back late in the game. Still, Kansas was sitting at 7-0 in the league and seemed to be on its way to a ninth-straight Big 12 title.
But that’s when things started to unravel for the Jayhawks. The issues that had concerned Coach Self and the Kansas fanbase finally became big enough to result in losses. Early turnovers allowed Oklahoma State to build a big lead at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Cowboys ultimately snapped KU’s 33-game home win streak. Four days later, the Kansas offense was absolutely horrid in a loss at TCU, which was 0-8 in league play at the time.
After that improbable upset, the Jayhawks were facing the possibility of their first three-game losing streak since February of 2005. After a road loss against a resurgent Oklahoma squad, that fear came to fruition for Jayhawk Nation, knocking KU out of first place and putting them a game behind hated K-State.
Monday night, the Jayhawks once again returned to top form, looking dominant from start to finish against the Wildcats. Kansas cruised to a 21-point win, pushing the team back into a three-way tie for the league lead with seven games to play.
The biggest storyline to emerge from the three-game losing streak is the controversy over the point guard role. Johnson has made questionable decisions and been responsible for some frustrating turnovers, while his shooting percentage has taken a nose dive. To add fuel to the fire, Tharpe has stepped up and shown himself to be a quality facilitator when he’s put in at the point.
In conference play, EJ has posted a turnover percentage north of 35% in six different games. His assist-to-turnover ratio has been above 1.0 in only four of the team’s 11 conference games. Meanwhile, Tharpe has put his teammates in a position to score and even took on the daunting task of guarding Rodney McGruder in Monday’s win over K-State. Tharpe had an assist rate of 50.3% in that win against KSU, and posted 43.4% and 45% in the home win over OU and the loss to Oklahoma State.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Tharpe makes things click when he is on the court, so Self and the Jayhawks now have to decide just how many minutes the sophomore guard will get. Someone has to sit on the bench to make room for the point guard, and it’s not an easy decision. The solution late in the game against Texas was to run with four guards. Unfortunately, that made Kevin Young the odd man out, with Jeff Withey obviously cemented into his role in the middle. Young provides an excellent spark for KU and is a constant hustle guy. Meanwhile, Johnson is much more comfortable when he slides off to shooting guard. If the Jayhawks are still going to make a run to Atlanta, Coach Self has to find the right lineup combination that can utilize Tharpe’s talents and still optimize the minutes he gives Johnson and Young.
Keys to the game
1) Limit transition points – In the first meeting between these two teams, the Longhorns were clearly concerned with Kansas’ ability to put up points on the run, as they completely abandoned the offensive glass in an effort to get back on D. That concern is sure to be an even bigger point of emphasis at Allen Fieldhouse, where the nation’s best home-court advantage is on display any time the Jayhawks score on the break. Visiting coaches always have to burn timeouts to kill the momentum when the KU transition game starts cranking up, so the Longhorns have to be wary of that constant threat in tonight’s game.
Still, completely conceding offensive rebounds isn’t necessarily the only approach. Oklahoma State found a lot of success on the offensive glass against KU, with many of their boards coming from 6’4″ guard Marcus Smart. If the Longhorns focus on their weak-side rebounding opportunities, it’s still possible to earn some second chance points while still having three or four players ready to stop the transition attack.
2) Push the tempo wisely – Texas was able to play at a faster pace with Kabongo at the helm on Wednesday, but the Horns must be careful with their tempo tonight. The Longhorns need to look for opportunities to push the tempo when the defense isn’t ready to stop the break, but they shouldn’t be trying to slam on the accelerator all night long.
A slower pace helps to keep the Allen Fieldhouse crowd out of the game, and it limits Kansas’ ability to put together quick scoring runs. Still, scoring in the halfcourt against the Jayhawks and their block-machine of a center is very difficult. If and when Texas can score easy points and avoid the half-court grind, it has to take advantage. The young Horns just have to be careful not to get caught up in the moment and play right into the hands of the Jayhawks.
3) Knock down perimeter looks – This key is much easier said than done for a Texas team that is dead last in the Big 12 when it comes to long-range shooting. The Horns have made only 26.2% of their threes in conference games, including an ugly 28% success rate against Iowa State on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, Kansas has the strongest interior defense in the country, limiting opponents to 38.5% shooting inside the arc. If Texas is to have any hope for a monumental upset tonight, the team will have to knock down some triples.
There is some reason for optimism, however. After shooting 28.5% from the field in the three games prior to Wednesday, Julien Lewis was much more selective against the Cyclones. He took and missed only one shot in regulation before hitting two huge three-pointers in overtime. Point guard Javan Felix showed off a great spot-up jumper from the perimeter, something fans never saw when he was on the ball for the first 23 games of the season. Add in Ioannis Papapetrou and his 38.6% mark from long range, and there’s reason to believe the Longhorns could knock down some triples. If they do, the Horns could hang with the Jayhawks until crunch time. If not, they will likely find it hard to score inside and could be in a deep hole very quickly.