Long Beach State 49ers (5-6) at #9/9 Texas Longhorns (9-1)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: LHN
Vegas: Texas -15.5 | KenPom: Texas, 71-56 (93%)

Although the Longhorns are favored in the rest of their non-conference games, there are still a pair of good tests left on their December home schedule. Stanford, who travels to Austin on Tuesday night, is the bigger name, but tonight’s opponent, Long Beach State, is certainly one of the better mid-majors to come through the Erwin Center in recent years.

Dan Monson has challenged his Long Beach State squad
(Photo credit: David Kohl/Associated Press)

Don’t let the 5-6 record fool you. Dan Monson drew up a brutal schedule for his 49ers, one which is currently ranked 6th-toughest in the country by Ken Pomeroy. That ranking doesn’t even include their remaining non-con schedule, which has road games with Texas, St. John’s, Syracuse, and Louisville.

Although the 49ers have played quite a few major-conference opponents close this year, they fell short in most of their upset bigs. Still, they managed to snag a pair of nice scalps in wins over Kansas State at home and Xavier on a neutral court. The 49ers had previously been blasted by Xavier in Cincinnati, playing such awful defense that they were able to lose by 23 points while shooting nearly 55% from the field.

Texas clearly has the edge on paper, but Long Beach State has a team that is quick and athletic enough to hang with big-name opponents. The 49ers also have a pair of familiar names that have played at other successful D-I programs, so this is not the clear mismatch that typifies most December home games for Texas. If Texas’ intense defensive focus happens to go on an early Christmas break, things could get interesting tonight.

Players to watch

The most familiar transfer at Coach Monson’s disposal is senior Tyler Lamb (No. 1), the former UCLA Bruin who is taking a ton of shots for the 49ers this season. Lamb is responsible for more than 25% of LBSU’s attempts when he’s on the court, and has made more than 35% of his three-point attempts this year.

Mike Caffey is still working on his levitation skills
(Photo credit: Mike J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Lamb also makes great cuts without the ball, which usually lead to easy layups when point guard Michael Caffey (No. 5) finds him flashing to the rim. Caffey has an outstanding assist rate of 32.7%, a number buoyed by his ability to exploit defensive cracks with dribble penetration and then find wide open teammates.

Defenses also have to pay very close attention to Caffey when he passes the ball off, as Long Beach State does a great job freeing him up on flares out to the perimeter, where he’s absolutely deadly in catch-and-shoot situations. Caffey leads the team with 44 long-range attempts, and has knocked down half of them.

Inside, freshman Temidayo Yussuf (No. 4) and senior David Samuels (No. 11) will have the tough task of matching up with the size of Texas. Both are a very lanky 6’7″, but Yussuf has much more muscle than would be expected of a mid-major freshman. He has no problem banging inside and absorbing contact while getting his shot up, but still needs some work on his post defense. Samuels uses more of a face-up game on offense, but his length helps inside defensively, and also causes some issues for opposing guards when he switches on perimeter screens.

Although he doesn’t average a ton of minutes, senior Eric McKnight (No. 12) is another name that will be familiar to college basketball fans. McKnight started his collegiate career at Iowa State, but became well-known as part of Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City run through the NCAA tournament. After earning a degree at FGCU, McKnight took advantage of the graduate transfer rule, and has played in nine of LBSU’s 10 games this season. In those appearances, McKnight has averaged 16.6 minutes, but has been plagued by foul trouble, being whistled for more than six fouls per 40 minutes.

Despite coming off the bench, Branford Jones (No. 14) is playing more than 21 minutes per game, and he is another three-point threat for the 49ers. Jones has made more than 40% of his long-range shots, but also makes significant contributions on the defensive end. His personal steal rate of 2.7% is ranked in the Top 500 nationally, but he manages to play that pesky defense without fouling. He is averaging just 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes, which also ranks in the Top 500.

Keys to the game

The 49ers have struggled to win defensive rebounds
(Photo credit: David Kohl/Associated Press)

1) Clean the offensive glass – While Long Beach State’s defense has been hit-or-miss this season, a recurring problem has been second-chance points. The 49ers have allowed opponents to reclaim 38% of their misses, which is currently one of the 30 worst marks in Division I. They have allowed opponents to crack the 40% plateau in five games, including a hideous 60% allowed at Stephen F. Austin on December 5th. The Longhorns are currently the sixth-best team in the nation when it comes to earning second chances, so they should be able to score a ton of extra points after winning back their own misses tonight.

2) Don’t lose the shooters – Long Beach State only shoots a few more threes than the average team, but they are quite accurate when they do put up a long-range shot. The Longhorns need to be ready to challenge on the perimeter when Caffey and the other 49ers create with dribble penetration, as kickouts are very common for LBSU. Texas also has to be ready to fight through screens off the ball, as Caffey will frequently be using them to try to free himself up for a catch-and-shoot from the arc.

3) Focus on feeding the post – In the first half against Texas State, the Longhorn big men gave up far too easily when fighting for post position. They came out of the locker room with a renewed focus on pounding it inside, and the bigs have played three strong halves of basketball since then. Long Beach State does not have the size to match up with Texas inside, and their own big men are prone to foul trouble. Texas needs to try to get Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner going inside, not only to tag Long Beach State with some fouls, but also to build on the recent success by both players before conference play arrives.