Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: LHN
LRT Consecutive Game #257
The Texas Longhorns continue their season-opening four-game homestand tonight against Stephen F. Austin, in the first meeting between the two programs since 2003. The Longhorns have needed comeback efforts against Mercer and South Alabama to log their first two wins, and tonight’s contest against SFA could provide a similar mid-major challenge.
The Lumberjacks have been wildly successful in recent years, holding the best Division I record in the state of Texas over the last six seasons. That success came with recently-departed head coach Danny Kaspar at the helm, but it’s a tradition that newcomer Brad Underwood hopes to continue in his first year on the job. SFA is coming off a season in which it won the Southland Conference before falling to Northwestern State in the conference tournament finals. Then, in the first round of the NIT, the Lumberjacks nearly pulled off a road upset, coming up just short in a 58-57 loss to Stanford.
In addition to Coach Kaspar, the Lumberjacks also lost a trio of senior starters in Taylor Smith, Antonio Bostic, and Hal Bateman. Smith was Player of the Year in the Southland Conference last season and averaged nearly a double-double with 15.7 points and 9.2 boards per game. Bostic also logged a double-digit scoring average, while guard Bateman was on the SLC’s All-Defensive Team.
Now, senior guard Desmond Haymon (No. 25) is being counted on to take the reins after being third on the team in scoring as a junior. In the first two games this year, he’s scored 27 total points on 50% shooting. While he’s only 2-for-8 on threes this season, he did lead the team with 37 makes last year, when he sank more than 37% of his attempts.
Joining Haymon in the backcourt are sophomores Thomas Walkup (No. 0) and Trey Pinkney (No. 10). Walkup is coming off of a solid 14-point, eight-board performance against Texas State, and he has grabbed more than 17% of his offensive rebounding opportunities on the year. Pinkney has a very high free-throw rate of 142.9 in his first two games, but he has yet to capitalize on his trips to the stripe. For the season, Pinkney is just 5-of-10 at the line.
SFA’s biggest problem tonight will be its lack of size, as the team has started 6’5″ Nikola Gajic (No. 4) and 6’6″ Jacob Parker (No. 34) at forward in the first two games. In the team’s only Division I contest, a 64-57 win over Kaspar’s new team, Texas State, the Lumberjacks allowed the Bobcats to reclaim more than 43% of their missed shots. With the Texas frontcourt boasting four guys listed at 6’8″ or taller, that could mean an astronomical number of second chances for the Horns.
The Lumberjacks do have some options on the bench if they decide to try to match Texas’ size. Junior-college transfers Tanner Clayton (No. 30) and Sharife Sergeant (No. 32) both check in at 6’9″, but have both only averaged about seven minutes in the first two games.
For Texas, the size disparity should provide a good opportunity for the bigs to clean up their post game. The Longhorns have made it a point to work the ball down low so far this season, and sophomores Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh are both looking more confident and decisive with the ball. However, all four of the Longhorn big men have had problems actually finishing near the rim. While Texas shouldn’t have much trouble reclaiming any point-blank misses tonight, it would be nice to see the Horns start making their first attempts in and around the lane.
The Longhorns have also struggled with ball control early in each of their first two games, which is a reason for concern against SFA. The Lumberjack defense stole the show in the win over Texas State, forcing the Bobcats into turnovers on nearly 27% of their possessions. The young Texas backcourt has to take care of the rock tonight, especially freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor, who had a particularly rough start against South Alabama. Coughing it up early will only serve to give the Lumberjacks early momentum with extra possessions and easy fast-break buckets.
One glaring issue for the Lumberjacks in their first two games has been points left at the free-throw line. In the two wins, SFA has made just 63.3% of their attempts at the line, a number dragged down by the hideous 12-for-25 mark posted against Texas State. Those struggles may not be make a big difference tonight, as the Longhorns have actually not sent opponents to the free-throw line very frequently, even with the new emphasis on defensive contact. Through two contests, the Longhorns have a defensive free-throw rate of 30.3%, currently 57th lowest out of 351 Division I squads.
After a pair of games in which the Longhorns dug huge holes before storming back for wins, tonight could be the first opportunity for Texas to earn a comfortable victory. A year ago, this match-up probably would have resulted in a historic road win for SFA at the Erwin Center, but instead Texas is catching the Lumberjacks in a transition year and at a time where they lack interior size. If the Longhorns can avoid the turnover bug tonight, they should head into the weekend with a 3-0 mark.