Mercedes-Benz Arena | Shanghai, China | Tip: 9 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
Vegas: Texas -11 | KenPom: Texas, 76-67 (80%)
Although it may have seemed a bit longer than usual for Texas fans this year, the college basketball offseason is finally over. With football results inconsistent and excitement surrounding the start of the Shaka Smart era at UT, anticipation for college hoops in Austin is higher than it has been in nearly a decade.
Texas returns the bulk of its roster from the 2014-15 season, having lost only Jonathan Holmes and Myles Turner to graduation and the NBA draft, respectively. But even with so much returning talent, the arrival of a new coach and a new style of play have surrounded this year’s team with question marks.
How will a formidable Texas frontcourt fit into Smart’s famous “Havoc” system? Will the incoming freshmen finally end the offensive woes of the last few years? Just how will the Longhorns split up the minutes with such a deep bench?
While Texas fans will be able to start answering those questions in just a few hours, Washington fans have just as many — if not more — about their own team. After a disappointing 33-30 record over the last two seasons, coach Lorenzo Romar bid adieu to all but three of last year’s scholarship players in a transfer epidemic. Rather than panic and sign anyone just to fill out a roster, the Huskies instead brought in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to restock the cupboard.
It was clearly time for a reboot in Seattle, and the roster full of fresh faces certainly provides the Huskies an opportunity to chart a new course. In Washington’s exhibition against Seattle Pacific, Romar started four freshmen, and his newcomers played 77% of the team’s minutes. Although it’s probably a safe bet that the young Huskies will employ a smaller, more athletic lineup this season, it’s still a mystery what that rotation will look like in the season opener.
Keys to the Game
1. Exploit the advantage inside – In the exhibition game, Texas was without Shaq Cleare and Connor Lammert, who are both available for the season opener. Lacking depth in the frontcourt, the Longhorns played for much of the contest with just one big. Cameron Ridley looked incredibly confident, moving quickly with the ball in the post, and he dominated the glass against a smaller Tarleton State squad.
With the Huskies expected to trot out a smaller lineup, the Longhorns again have an opportunity to control the post. The size and depth of the Texas frontcourt should give them a significant scoring and rebounding edge, regardless of whether they elect for the traditional approach of two big men, or the option of smaller, more athletic four. If the Longhorns can capitalize on that with points in the paint and strong rebounding percentages, Washington will have a tough time keeping up.
2. Keep the starting backcourt on the floor – The Longhorns will be the much more experienced team on Saturday morning in Shanghai, with junior Isaiah Taylor and senior Demarcus Holland leading the way in the backcourt. Although newcomer Kerwin Roach is more than capable of handling the basketball in the absence of the two upperclassmen, their leadership will be important in a game environment that is going to be completely abnormal. Taylor picked up some frustrating fouls in the exhibition game by trying to be aggressive in the wrong spots, so today he must avoid putting himself on the bench with needless fouls.
3. Grab control early – The game starts at 11 A.M. on Saturday here in Shanghai, a tip time that is notoriously bad for college kids. It can be hard for players to get fired up for a morning game, and playing in front of an unaffiliated crowd that may be sparse will make that even tougher. The fans that do show up will likely root for baskets more than teams, so if Texas can avoid the morning slump and put some immediate points on the board, they may be able to create their own energy in a very unconventional setting.