Texas Longhorns (16-17) at Houston Cougars (19-12)
Collge Basketball Invitational First Round | Hofheinz Pavilion | Houston, TX
Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: AXS TV | Radio: Longhorn IMG Radio Network (Affiliate list)
LRT Consecutive Game #254

For the first time in fifteen years, the Texas Longhorns will be sitting at home when the NCAA’s Round of 64 tips off tomorrow morning. Although Texas will not be part of the NCAA tournament, the team is still participating in a post-season event, albeit a much-less prestigious one. Tonight, the Longhorns open play in the College Basketball Invitational, traveling to Houston’s Hofeinz Pavilion.

Like Kentucky in the NIT last night, the Longhorns could not host a first round game in the CBI because their home floor is being used to host NCAA tournament games this weekend. The road trip could grow longer, as even if the Longhorns advance to the quarterfinals of the CBI on Monday, a school spokesman told Mark Rosner that the Frank Erwin Center could not be flipped in time for a home game that night. That means that a win in tonight’s game would slate Texas for another road game on Monday, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Tonight’s match-up revives a long-dormant Southwest Conference rivalry. Houston and Texas have not faced off since the 2000-01 season, when the Longhorns notched a 71-60 win in Houston. It was the second consecutive win for UT over the Cougars, and gave Texas a narrow 32-31 edge in the series. Tonight’s head coaches, Rick Barnes and James Dickey, have previously met six times. Barnes holds a 6-0 record against his counterpart, with all of the match-ups coming during the final three years of Dickey’s tenure at Texas Tech.

By the numbers

The Cougars run an up-tempo attack, logging an average of 70.4 possessions per game, adjusted for the opposition. That quick pace ranks 20th in Division I, according to Ken Pomeroy.

Houston does not force many turnovers, instead opting to get their transition opportunities after reclaiming opponents’ misses. Cougar opponents cough it up on just 17.9% of their possessions, ranking Houston in the bottom fifth of the country when it comes to forcing miscues. The Cougars are near the median in D-I for reclaiming opponents’ misses, grabbing 31.2% of their opportunities. The average for all Division I teams is 31.8%.

Houston’s guards have struggled to contain the basketball
(Photo credit: Johnny Hanson/Houston Chronicle)

That inability to force turnovers and the average performance on the glass are two reasons why Houston has one of the worst defenses in the country. However, it is a problem with turning back dribble penetration — especially in the second half of many games — that has allowed Cougar opponents to score 1.073 adjusted points per possession. Those struggles with keeping the ball in front of the defense allows opponents to get to the rack and find easy looks inside, leading to the sky-high 49.7% field-goal percentage that Houston opponents have logged inside the arc.

On the other end of the floor, Houston has had much less trouble. The Cougars score an adjusted 1.057 points per possession, currently good for 88th out of 347 Division I teams. Houston has a nice blend of quality shooters who can knock it down from outside and talented forwards who can score in the paint and crash the glass. The Cougs’ field goal percentages both inside (50.2%) and outside (36.9%) the arc put them in the top 20% of Division I teams.

In addition to being able to put the ball in the basket, Houston also benefits from making possessions count. The team coughs it up on just 18.5% of its possessions and reclaims 33.3% of its missed shots. With a nice stable of bigs in the frontcourt, Houston also makes its way to the line fairly often, posting a free-throw rate of 40% on the season. In simpler terms, that means that the Cougars earn two free throws for every five field goals they take.

Meet the Cougars

At the point, juco transfer Tione Womack (No. 14) runs the show. He came to Houston from Hagerstown CC in his home state of Maryland, and took over the starting role a month ago. In the last nine games, he has averaged 28 minutes per game as the starter and dished out four assists per game. Although he’s not very strong at 6’1″ and only 170 pounds, Womack sets the table for his teammates, logging assists on 22.5% of the buckets scored when he is on the court.

The man who previously held the starting gig was 6-foot freshman J.J. Thompson (No. 3). He has seen his minutes drastically reduced with Womack now holding the reins, even failing to see the court in three of those nine contests. In the other six, he averaged 8.2 minutes, pulling his season average down to roughly 21 minutes per game. Turnovers were a major issue for the freshman this year, as he posted a 1.37 assist-to-turnover ratio on the season.

The shooting guard for Houston is hometown product Joseph Young (No. 0), a selection to this year’s All-Conference USA Third Team. Young is deadly from long range, having connected on more than 42% of his attempts this season. He also can knock down the pull-up jumper, and will put the ball on the floor to punish teams that play him too tightly on the perimeter. His 17.9 points per game are tops on the team, and his offensive rating of 124.2 is ranked 33rd out of all D-I players.

On the wing, Danuel House (No. 23) is a tough cover. He’s a very strong 6’7″ with great handles and an ability to slip right through the defense. That slashing ability gets House to the line with regularity, where he knocks down 72% of his attempts. His free-throw rate of 58.8% ranks him 100th in the country at getting to the line, something that will be a concern for a Texas team that frequently sends opponents to the stripe.

Forward TaShawn Thomas is the star for Houston
(Photo credit: James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle)

The Cougars have a very deep frontcourt filled with bigs who are not only strong, but very athletic, as well. Sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas (No. 35) is the most dangerous of these, as his selection to the First Team All-Conference USA squad would indicate. At 6’8″ and 215 pounds, the Killeen product is a handful inside. He is second on the team with 16.8 points and leads the squad with 9.5 rebounds. That number is inflated a bit by the up-tempo approach of Houston, but his offensive and defensive rebounding rates of 10.5% and 21.9% are still both ranked in the Top 250 for D-I players.

Thomas has a nice repertoire of moves, which could cause issues for a Texas frontcourt that was destroyed by the likes of OU’s Romero Osby and Kansas State’s Thomas Gipson. Thomas can bull his way inside for points, but also can go over either shoulder to hit hook shots and can knock down turnaround jumpers from anywhere near the paint. The Texas bigs will have to stay home and avoid biting on fakes if they hope to limit his damage tonight.

Joining Thomas in the frontcourt is Mikhail McLean (No. 1), another 6’8″ forward for Coach Dickey. McLean is averaging just 13.9 minutes per game, but has seen his role increase over the final few weeks of the season as he works his way back from a broken hand. Although he’s not a focal point of the offense, McLane has started nine of the last ten games and has done a great job reclaiming missed shots.

The Cougars see little dropoff when they go to their reserves in the frontcourt, as senior forward Leon Gibson (No. 15) started 12 games this season. A transfer from Navarro JC, Gibson has the prototypical back-to-the-basket game that allows him to score easily when he gets touches on the block. He is also a beast on the glass, but his limited 16 minutes per game prevent him from being ranked nationally in rebounding percentage.

Another solid reserve for Coach Dickey is swingman Jherrod Stiggers (No. 21), who would draw all of the attention as a long-range sharpshooter, if it weren’t for the presence of Young. Stiggers has knocked down 39.8% of his three-point attempts this season. Texas has the sixth-best defense in the country when it comes to defending the arc, so the Horns must continue that level of dominance if they want to neutralize Stiggers tonight.

Fellow guard Brandon Morris (No. 2) will likely see the court for ten to twelve minutes tonight, but is not a huge offensive threat. His 2.9% steal mark would be ranked nationally if he played more minutes, so the Texas guards cannot afford to be loose with the ball in his vicinity.

Forward J.J. Richardson (No. 55) rounds out the rotation, but his minutes have been limited all season long due to a nagging foot injury. In a road game against crosstown rival Rice, Richardson showed just what kind of a post presence he could be at full strength, putting in 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field. Since then, he has played in just five of the team’s ten games, and he logged only eight total minutes in Houston’s two games at the C-USA tournament.

Keys to the game

1) Stop transition – Although the Longhorns have been wildly inconsistent all season long, the one aspect of their play that has been generally strong is the defensive effort. If Texas can prevent Houston from pushing the pace after missed Longhorn shots, it should be able to force the Cougars to score in the half-court. That will play to Texas’ strengths, while also eliminating easy points for Houston. If the Cougars are not able to pile up fast-break points against the Horns, they will likely find it difficult to advance to the CBI quarterfinals.

2) Attack the paint – Houston has repeatedly struggled to keep the basketball in front of its perimeter defenders, opening up the lane to dribble penetration. If the Longhorns can avoid their bad habit of settling for jump shots, they should be able to frequently slash to the rim and get easy buckets, or at least draw help defense that opens up teammates.

3) Win on the glass – The Cougars are fairly average when it comes to rebounding the basketball, while the Longhorns have had a Jekyll and Hyde history on the two ends of the court. Texas does a great job rebounding its own misses, but lost many close games due to an inability to secure defensive boards in crunch time. If the Longhorns can continue their success on the offensive glass, they will be able to earn extra possessions against a Houston defense that is already very poor.

The real challenge will come on the other end of the floor, where the Cougs have an active frontcourt that can kill Texas with second-chance points. If the Longhorns can mitigate the damage from extra Houston possessions, they might escape Hofheinz to play another day.