Posted by Ryan Clark at 2:00AM

#7/9 Texas Longhorns 55, #24/22 Connecticut Huskies 54

Late in Sunday’s game in Storrs, it looked like the Longhorns were letting a golden opportunity slip away. Texas had built a lead as large as seven points just before the under-16 media timeout in the second half, but could only manage a trio of free throws over the next seven minutes. UConn wrestled momentum from the Longhorns and seemed poised to grind out another victory at home.

Texas did not help its own cause as the minutes ticked away. Despite holding UConn to just one field goal in the final nine minutes of the game, the Longhorns continually found ways to turn the ball over and failed to secure crucial rebounds and loose balls, leading to a handful of free throws for the Huskies. Still, despite all of that, an unexpected free-throw miss by Ryan Boatright with 15 seconds on the clock left the door open for Texas.

The Longhorns brought the ball up the court and ran a dribble weave about 25 feet from the basket as the seconds disappeared. Coach Rick Barnes started signaling for a timeout on the sideline, and it was granted with 4.4 to play, just before Javan Felix could hoist a desperation three from well beyond the NBA arc. After Texas drew up a play and came out on the floor, UConn’s Kevin Ollie surveyed the setup and called his own timeout.

Jonathan Holmes watches his game-winning three
(Photo credit: Jessica Hill/Associated Press)

That set the stage for another round of Jonathan Holmes heroics. With the lanky Daniel Hamilton guarding Holmes, Demarcus Holland set a screen to free up the senior big man, while Myles Turner slipped through the mass of bodies and raced to the bucket. Holmes found himself alone in the corner, where Connor Lammert fed him for a wide-open look. UConn big man Amida Brimah had to leave Turner alone under the basket so he could challenge Holmes’ three, giving Texas an excellent opportunity to tip in a miss.

It didn’t matter. Holmes, who leaned forward as he let the shot fly, splashed the game-winner with two seconds left on the clock. With the capacity crowd at Gampel Pavilion stunned into silence, Javan Felix stole the ball from UConn on the final play, sealing an improbable finish and victory for Texas.

The win moves the Longhorns to 6-0 on the year, completing a perfect month of November. It was the team’s first spotless November and the program’s best start since the 2009-10 campaign, a season in which the Huskies were able to knock off Texas at Gampel.

With another massive test looming for these Longhorns on Friday against the Kentucky Wildcats and their nine All-Americans, here are eight notes on the exciting Texas win:

1. Who said Rick Barnes can’t draw up a play in the huddle?

The sideline OOB play set up the second career game-winner for Jonathan Holmes, providing a strikingly similar look to the one he drained against Kansas State in last year’s meeting at the Erwin Center. The play gave the Longhorns two solid options for a last-second shot, and left the team with an insurance play in Turner underneath the bucket.

While the Texas offense has frequently gone stagnant for long stretches during games over the years, and Barnes has also earned a reputation with fans and the media as being an offensively-challenged coach, he does have a knack for giving his team a chance to win in the final seconds. Whether it be the two game-winners from Holmes, a great play for Ioannis Papapetrou in a 2003 double-OT thriller against Iowa State, or incredible clock management to force OT at Tech in 2003, Barnes has repeatedly shown that he can create a good look for his players in crunch time.

2. The stifling Texas D had the perfect gameplan

The Huskies go as Boatright goes, and the Longhorns were well aware of that. Although Hamilton is undoubtedly a great scorer, the freshman has yet to prove that he can take over a game and carry his team to victory. Knowing that, the Longhorns made life very difficult for Boatright in the first twenty minutes, daring other UConn players to beat them.

The decision to put Felix on Boatright was one that raised quite a few eyebrows in the minutes leading up to tip-off, but it paid off. Felix was able to stick with the senior guard, challenge his shots, and the Texas bigs were able to stifle Boatright’s drives when he did get past the perimeter defense. That resulted in a 4-for-10 first-half line for Boatright, with a pair of those makes having a high degree of difficulty.

Although Boatright found it easier to score in the second half, and he was able to earn himself more trips to the stripe, the Longhorns still forced the rest of the Huskies into taking long jumpers. Sam Cassell, Jr. finished 2-for-11 from the field, including just 1-of-7 from long range.

That defense kept Texas in the game as the offense scuttled through the second half. As previously mentioned, the Horns allowed just one bucket over the final nine minutes of play, while UConn had to rely on free throws — three of those coming as Texas was forced to foul in the final thirty seconds — for their final five points.

In the end, Texas held the Huskies to 30.4% shooting on the afternoon, while allowing just 0.885 points per possession. The Horns still boast the nation’s fourth-best defense through six games, limiting opponents to an adjusted 0.868 PPP, according to Ken Pomeroy.

3. Texas must take the good with the bad from Felix

On a team with a healthy Isaiah Taylor, Felix would likely be a role player who could provide some quality defense, knock down a few shots, and dish a few dimes every night. Instead, he has been thrust back into a point guard role on a team that desperately needs a slashing guard with a good stroke.

Forced to be something he’s not, Felix has put Texas fans on a roller-coaster ride in the last three games. In the win over UConn, that meant that while Felix played solid D on Boatright early, canned an important three in a run at the end of the first half, and logged four assists, he also gave Longhorn fans numerous ulcers. Felix was only officially dinged for two turnovers on the afternoon, but that number did not include the handful of transition threes he clanked, or the shot clock violation charged to the team when he was on the court.

Felix finished 2-for-8 from behind the arc, and is now 31.5% from the field in his two games at the point, with an effective field goal percentage of 39.5%. In the three games where Felix was able to spend more time off the ball, he was 43.5% from the field and posted an eFG of 52.2%. Once Taylor returns, it stands to reason that Felix will again see his numbers improve. Until then, he needs to focus on being a facilitator and must value the ball and his team’s possessions.

UConn made things difficult inside for Texas
(Photo credit: Jessica Hill/Associated Press)

4. Texas will have to develop a midrange game

Although having Taylor back will certainly open up some things inside due solely to his ability to create off the bounce, the Longhorns will also need to utilize a midrange game to keep opponents honest. If not, they will see more of what UConn was able to do on Sunday afternoon, packing the lane to neutralize the Longhorn bigs and force the Horns to beat them from outside.

Both Holmes and Lammert have the ability to knock down triples, along with midrange jumpers from the elbow or baseline. Turner has also shown range all over the court, so he would be a viable option in those same areas. If opponents are going to double Texas bigs on the catch, the Horns will need to be able to put those three in a position to float out of the paint and make opponents pay.

In addition to the versatile Texas frontcourt, the Longhorn guards also must be willing to take and able to make the midrange jumper when it presents itself. ESPN’s Kara Lawson rightly called out Holland for shying away from a midrange J late in the game, and until he or Felix start taking and making those shots, opponents will be able to sell out in an effort to limit the major advantage Texas owns down low.

5. Holland continues to emerge in Taylor’s absence

Despite passing up the midrange opportunities, Holland once again stepped up with Taylor out of the lineup. In addition to his well-advertised defensive skills, Holland has been on the lookout for driving opportunities since the team’s point guard went down, and his aggressive plays gave Texas early, easy buckets against UConn. The junior guard repeatedly made it to the rack as he scored 10 first-half points on 5-of-6 shooting, but he was shut out the rest of the way.

On the other end of the floor, Holland was tasked with guarding the indefatigable Boatright late in the game. Although Felix performed admirably against UConn’s best player, it was Holland who prevented Boatright and the Huskies from scoring a field goal in the game’s final minutes, keeping it within reach for Texas. And, of course, it should also be noted that it was Holland who set the key screen to free up Holmes for the game winner.

While Holland’s emergence has been key for Texas over the last nine days, the Horns will be a much more complete team if he continues to attack when the opportunities present themselves, even after the return of Taylor. As previously mentioned, increased confidence in Holland’s midrange game would be another helpful development, but even just having him continue his output when Taylor returns would be a boon for the Horns.

Myles Turner made key plays in the final minutes
(Photo credit: Jessica Hill/Associated Press)

6. Turner came up big in crunch time

It was a tough afternoon for the Texas bigs, as Cameron Ridley was limited to an ineffective 17 minutes and Turner struggled offensively against UConn’s suffocating interior D. None of that mattered when the pressure was on, though, as the freshman blocked three shots, secured two key defensive rebounds, and calmly sank two clutch free throws, all in the final three minutes.

7. Yancy is showing flashes, but still needs some seasoning

With Taylor out and Felix missing Tuesday’s win over St. Francis, Yancy has seen a sudden upswing in his minutes. The sophomore guard has applied good defensive pressure on the perimeter and shown great burst in getting to the rack, but has still played erratically enough to make his time on the court an adventure.

Against UConn, Yancy was tagged with three turnovers, none of them more costly than the offensive foul for which he was whistled with 13:27 to go. The Longhorns led by four at that point, but Yancy swung his elbows to clear space on the wing, making some contact with Boatright’s chin. By letter of the law, that resulted in a Flagrant 1, giving UConn two free throws and the ball. Although the Huskies could only capitalize on the free throws and not the extra possession, the mistake effectively killed the momentum for Texas and gave UConn enough life to slowly build a lead down the stretch.

Yancy’s other turnovers were a result of getting a little too deep with the bounce against a set defense, something he needs to improve if he wants to maintain a key role. If he can learn to rein in that explosive speed with the ball, he can limit his turnovers in the future, while still providing some nifty slashes to the rack. If Yancy can’t find a way to do that this year, his role will significantly diminish once Taylor is available.

8. The Horns were outhustled to loose balls

For the first time this season, the Longhorns were outrebounded, as the Huskies snagged 36 boards to just 35 for Texas. Many of those rebounds were painfully frustrating offensive boards that UConn won back, simply beating the Longhorns to the long caroms. The Horns repeatedly saw their defensive stops wiped out by those offensive boards, which led to 11 crucial second-chance points.

Texas had a distinct size advantage inside, but was still often beaten by Kentan Facey and his nose for rebounds. On the long boards, which Texas typically hustled to win in their first five games, UConn was simply quicker to react.

The Longhorns are going to force opponents into a lot of bad misses this season, but if they cannot close out those possessions with strong rebounding, it is going to lead to some back-breaking second chances. They will be especially harmful in low-possession games such as this one at UConn, where those extra looks almost cost Texas the game.

Up next: vs. UT-Arlington (3-3); Tuesday, 7 P.M. CT (LHN)

Posted by Ryan Clark at 2:54AM

#7/9 Texas Longhorns (5-0) at #24/22 Connecticut Huskies (3-1)
Gampel Pavilion | Storrs, CT | Tip: 11 A.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
Vegas: UConn -1 | KenPom: UConn, 64-63 (51%)

The Texas Longhorns are off to a 5-0 start for the first time since the 2009-10 season, when the team reeled off 17 straight wins to start the year and ascended to the nation’s No. 1 ranking. To match that feat, this year’s squad would have to navigate a non-conference minefield, beginning with this morning’s game at the defending national champions, and also including next weekend’s road trip to last year’s national runner-up. Oh, and did I mention that they’ll have to do that without their starting point guard, and with his backup nursing a sore foot?

Kevin Ollie won an NCAA title in just his second year
(Photo credit: Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Press)

While the odds of another 17-0 start are slim, the Longhorns still have a good chance to leave Storrs with a win today. Texas is a slight underdog according to Vegas, but their size and experience match up well against a UConn team that is thin in the frontcourt and lost quite a bit from last year’s title team. If the Longhorns can emerge victorious on the road, they will also end an impressive streak of 44 consecutive non-conference wins for UConn at Gampel, dating back to 2001.

By the numbers

The Huskies are ranked in the top 40 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy, although they’ve achieved those marks without any dominant numbers in specific categories. Their tempo trends towards the slower half of Division I, with the team playing an adjusted 66.4 possessions per game.

Mix all of those numbers together, and you can see why UConn’s three wins have come by an average of ten points, even though all three were still battles into the second half. The Huskies don’t wow you with any particular aspect of their game, but they are good enough to grind out a win in crunch time.

Where UConn does stand out somewhat in statistical categories is on the interior of the defensive end. Thanks to a stout rim protector — we’ll have more on him later — UConn has the nation’s 56th-best block rate at 13.3%, and they boast the nation’s 45th-best defensive rebounding mark, as they limit opponents to winning back just 26.2% of their misses.

On offense, two numbers tell the statistical tale. UConn’s best ranking is their two-point field-goal percentage of 51.7%, which is 78th out of 351 Division I teams. The other half of the story is told by their 42.4% team assist rate, which is ranked 317th out of the 351 teams. UConn has an incredible playmaker in the backcourt — another guy we’ll cover in just a moment — but no one else that can consistently beat the defense and set up teammates.

Meet the Huskies

That playmaker for the Huskies is Ryan Boatright (No. 11), a senior guard who is the unquestioned team leader, and the best returning piece from last year’s national championship team. Boatright is the one player who can consistently create his own shot with the bounce, and also the only one who can use the dribble to create looks for his teammates. Boatright’s personal assist ratio of 27.8% is more than double that of the second-best UConn assist rate.

Boatright has a bit of playground flair to his game, which you can see when he gets locked in on a defender and decides to beat him one-on-one. With a mix of crossovers, spin moves, behind-the-back and between-the-leg dribbles, Boatright can quickly break down a defender and bring the crowd to life in the blink of an eye.

On the other end, Boatright is a fantastic on-ball defender, and his quick hands often lead to steals and fast break buckets on the other end. With Isaiah Taylor out of action today, Javan Felix and the other Texas guards will have to be very careful against Boatright in the half-court sets.

Joining Boatright in the backcourt is N.C. State transfer Rodney Purvis (No. 44). The sophomore is a stout 6’4″ guard who can get to the rim, but has yet to make a major impact at UConn. After missing the first game of the season due to a minor NCAA infraction, Purvis has made just 37% of his shots, and connected on only 30.8% of his attempts from long range.

Daniel Hamilton has impressed as a freshman
(Photo credit: Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Press)

The team’s most exciting new addition comes in the form of lanky wingman Daniel Hamilton (No. 5). The younger brother of former Longhorn Jordan Hamilton, Daniel has turned out to be the team’s best three-point shooter, and has also frequently used that long-range threat to beat defenders with strong head fakes behind the arc.

While Hamilton has proven to be an explosive scorer that can heat up in a hurry, his decision-making has been questionable through his first four collegiate games. He often jumps before passing the ball, even though he’s a very long 6’7″, which leads to unnecessary turnovers. On the year, Hamilton has the team’s highest turnover rate, with a 31.2% mark.

Down low, the Huskies have a formidable big man in Amida Brimah (No. 35), the rim protector we mentioned earlier. Brimah’s block percentage of 13.3% is the 17th-highest in Division I, and it allows Boatright and the Huskies to extend their pressure beyond the perimeter, since he’s always lurking in the middle to clean up any penetration.

On the other end, Brimah has improved his game and worked on the short jumpers and a back-to-the-basket game. Although those skills are still works in progress, the big man still consistently scores in the pick-and-roll, with Boatright and Hamilton often the trigger men.

Joining Brimah in the frontcourt is sophomore Kentan Facey (No. 12), a Jamaican kid who didn’t really start playing basketball until he was 15, instead focusing on soccer and cricket. Even with the late start, Facey has developed excellent rebounding skills and makes good cuts without the ball. The big man can track down boards that are not in his area, and he leads the team in rebounding percentage as a result.

The Huskies are rather thin in the frontcourt, with Phillip Nolan (No. 1) the only real option behind Brimah and Facey. He actually has some nice post moves, but has struggled with foul trouble that limits his effectiveness. The 6’10” junior is playing less than nine minutes a game, while getting called for fouls at a rate of nearly 13 per 40 minutes.

In addition to Nolan, the Huskies also have a stout 6’8″ freshman named Rakim “Rock” Lubin (No. 14). Lubin was suspended while the team was in Puerto Rico and was reinstated late this week, so his minutes may be limited today.

In the backcourt, both Terrence Samuel (No. 3) and Sam Cassell, Jr. (No. 10) provide some depth. Both can create their own shot, although Samuel has struggled at times this year to finish at the rim. While Cassell was looked to as a potential three-point threat at the beginning of the year, he’s yet to deliver, making just 22% of his 18 attempts this season.

Keys to the Game

Ryan Boatright is an explosive scoring threat
(Photo credit: Fred Beckham/Associated Press)

1. Don’t give Boatright easy buckets – Boatright can get his own looks off the bounce, and will drill a pull-up jumper right in a defender’s eye. With his ability to score in an instant and take over a basketball game, the Longhorns cannot afford to give him any easy buckets. The Texas guards must take care of the ball at the top of the key to limit turnovers and fast break buckets, and the Longhorns must stop Boatright and the ball in transition.

2. Attack Brimah early and often – Without much behind Brimah on the depth chart, the Longhorns need to focus on putting the big man in foul trouble early. If Texas can put him on the bench, it completely changes the UConn defensive scheme, as their pressure defense would be more susceptible to finishes at the rim, and it would take away one of their big offensive weapons on the pick and roll.

3. Look for transition opportunities – When the UConn defense gets set, their pressure can be hard to handle. But, as opponents have proven this year, the Huskies can be beaten in the transition game, as they often fall asleep and forget to stop the ball. The Longhorns need to look upcourt after both makes and misses from UConn, and attempt to log as many fast break points as they can.

4. Force UConn to win with jumpers – Although Boatright has a great midrange game and Hamilton has proven to be a long-range marksman, the UConn offense struggles when it’s kept away from the rim. The Huskies missed nine straight shots and 14-of-18 against the Bryant zone in their season opener, and Bryant is a team that typically plays man-to-man defense! With the length that the Longhorns have inside, they need to pack in the defense and force a poor-shooting UConn team to beat them with the J.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 7:11PM

#9/8 Connecticut Huskies 82, #12/12 Texas Longhorns 81 (OT)

With the Tech game less than 24 hours away, we’ll dispense with the introductions and get right into some post-game thoughts.

1) The game ball goes to Alex Oriakhi – Much has been written about Kemba Walker‘s performance in overtime, and there’s no denying that he single-handedly willed his team to victory in those extra five minutes. But without the sudden re-emergence of sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi, there’s no overtime for the Huskies to even play in.

Alex Oriakhi returned to his old form on Saturday
(Photo Credit: Patrick Raycraft/Hartford Courant)

Oriakhi looked like one of the nation’s most dominant bigs when he broke out at the Maui Invitational. In the three-game tournament, the sophomore tallied 45 points and grabbed 35 rebounds, logging double-doubles against both Michigan State and Kentucky. After re-entering the mainland, Oriakhi seemed to lose his mojo. He averaged just over eight points and six rebounds in the eight ensuing games, and saw his numbers dip even more in conference play thanks to foul trouble.

Against the Longhorns, Oriakhi tore down an eye-popping 21 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive end. He chipped in 11 points, and came up with the biggest block of the night when he rejected Texas’ game-winning attempt with ten seconds left in regulation.

If this is Alex Oriakhi that shows up the rest of this season, UConn will be a very tough team to beat. Without him, the Huskies are reduced to the Kemba Walker Show, and recent weeks have proven that he won’t be able to carry his team alone for much longer.

2) Free throws finally caught up with Texas – As a team, the Longhorns are currently the proud owners of a 64.8% free-throw mark. That’s good enough for 275th place in the country. To put it another way, there are only 70 teams in all of Division I basketball worse at the stripe than Texas.

Against UConn, the Longhorns made just 14 of their 23 attempts. Big man Tristan Thompson was a frustrating 1-of-6 from the line, including two excruciating misses in overtime. Jordan Hamilton was just 1-of-3 when he headed to the stripe, with one of his misses coming on the front end of a one-and-one.

It seems elementary to say that shooting 60.8% at the line cost a team the game when it was decided by just one point in overtime. But what is most frustrating about this never-ending free-throw nightmare is that while not only will it cost the Longhorns some wins against good teams, but it is likely also going to cost Texas a road game against a sub-par opponent. Losing an exciting, back-and-forth game to UConn is excusable. Losing in Lincoln or Norman? Not so much.

3) Damned if you Dogus, damned if you don’t – The Turkish Minister of Defense — better known by his given name of Dogus Balbay — is the biggest reason why Kemba Walker struggled so much on Saturday afternoon. It took 18 minutes for Walker to crack the scoreboard, and he finished regulation with just 15 points. Unfortunately, if you look at the substitution patterns late in the game, Balbay’s complete uselessness on offense essentially allowed the Huskies to force overtime.

Dogus Balbay struggled on the offensive end
(Photo Credit: Larry Kolvoord/American-Statesman)

With the Longhorns down one and just under two minutes on the clock, Coach Barnes called a timeout and subbed in Cory Joseph for Balbay. The offense-for-defense maneuver worked, and Texas took the lead on J’Covan Brown’s jumper. As Balbay watched from the bench, Walker immediately attacked the rim, drawing a foul on a helping Thompson en route to a three-point play.

There were a lot of moments in this game that all added up to a loss for the Longhorns. But Texas needs something, anything out of Balbay on the offensive end that will allow him to play more minutes. The team simply can’t afford to give an opponent’s best player an easier match-up in the most crucial minutes of the game.

4)Benchwarmers finally warmed up – J’Covan Brown had, without a doubt, his best game to-date on the 40 Acres. Sure, he still took a few questionable shots, but on Saturday afternoon, even two of those went in the bucket. He matched Jordan Hamilton with 20 points, despite playing 12 less minutes. From long range, a place he had struggled in mid-December, Brown was two for three. And on a day when nobody’s free throws seemed to go in, J’Covan made all four of his.

While not as strong as Brown’s performance, Matt Hill‘s contributions were important. He struggled early, but bounced back to come up with some key defensive stops and snagged a few defensive rebounds when Texas couldn’t even buy one. He logged six total boards in the game, and actually posted the best defensive rebounding numbers on the team when adjusted for minutes.

5) If at first you don’t succeed, hope you’re playing Texas – Easy putbacks have been a thorn in the side of the Texas defense all season long. Against North Carolina, those second-chance points nearly cost the team a big victory. With the Huskies scoring 24 of their own second-chance points on Saturday afternoon — 17 of them in the second half — the Longhorns were lucky to claw back and force overtime.

The worst part of the rebounding impotence is that it masked what was a quality defensive effort from the team. Texas held the Huskies to 38% shooting from the field, which is even more impressive when you consider how many shots UConn took just a foot or two from the bucket.

The optimist will simply chalk this up as an aberration, a result of the Longhorns selling out in an effort to stop Walker. The pessimist will declare that this is the inevitable result of having a frontcourt with little experience beyond the starters. The answer may lie somewhere between the two extremes, but there’s no doubt that the upcoming battles in a rugged Big 12 Conference will settle the debate. The first big test for the Texas frontcourt arrives next Wednesday, when the Longhorns take on an A&M squad that is currently eighth-best in the nation on the offensive glass.

Next up: at Texas Tech (8-8); 6 P.M., Tuesday

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:51AM

# 9/8 Connecticut Huskies (11-2) at #12/12 Texas Longhorns (12-2)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 2:30 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN

A year ago, a road game against UConn served as the turning point in a disappointing season for the Texas Longhorns, a season in which they ascended to the nation’s No. 1 ranking before spiraling into a free-fall that ended with a first-round NCAA exit.

The Huskies blew past Texas in Storrs last season
(Photo credit: Patrick Raycraft/Hartford Courant)

When the Longhorns blew a 10-point second-half lead in Storrs last season, ultimately losing to the Huskies by 14 points, they had already suffered their first loss of the year to Kansas State. But the team’s inexplicable collapse in the final 20 minutes against UConn served as a microcosm of a season in which the team had an equally-frustrating implosion down the stretch.

With UConn losing both Stanley Robinson and Jerome Dyson in the off-season, this year’s match-up between the two teams seemed like an easy chance for Texas’ revenge. The Huskies entered the season as one of the youngest teams in the country, with a frontcourt surrounded by question marks.

Then, the Maui Invitational happened. Kemba Walker, who spent his summer working hard in NBA skills camps and with the USA Select team, exploded onto the national scene with 90 points in three games, leading his young team to a tournament title with wins over Michigan State and Kentucky.

The potential is certainly still there for a Texas revenge win. In recent weeks, the Huskies have struggled as they entered conference play, suffering a pair of road losses to Pitt and Notre Dame, while being forced to overtime by a South Florida team that now holds a 6-10 record. Stat guru Ken Pomeroy gives Texas a 78% chance to win this afternoon, projecting a 74-68 win for the Horns.

By the numbers

Coached by longtime legend Jim Calhoun, the Huskies are sound on both ends of the court. Their skill on both offense and defense gives them a per-possession scoring differential of 0.218, which ranks 29th nationally. As a point of comparison, the Longhorns rank 15th in that category, holding a 0.264 differential.

In eight of the last nine seasons, UConn has led the nation in blocks. The one year they didn’t claim the top spot, they slid all the way down to second. This year, the solid team defense has them blocking shots at a ridiculous pace once again, swatting 18.2% of their opponents shots. While not yet tops in the nation, that mark puts the Huskies at third in D-I basketball.

Thanks to that intimidating inside presence, the UConn defense simply doesn’t let teams score easily inside. Their defense is allowing opponents to shoot just 39.5% inside the arc, a mark that is 7th in the nation. The Longhorns come into today’s game just as stout inside, allowing just a 38.6% success rate, good for 3rd in the country. If today’s game settles into a half-court affair, it will either be a low-scoring battle or a showcase of three-point shooting.

Kemba Walker has been practically unstoppable
(Photo credit: Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

On offense, the Huskies make their possessions count. Their turnover rate is a scant 17.8%, 38th in the country, while their offensive rebounding percantage is 4th in the country. UConn grabs 43.5% of their misses, but those numbers may be deceptive thanks to an incredibly weak non-con schedule.

The Huskies have played five opponents who place in the bottom 100 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, and the team’s recent foray into Big East play seem to indicate that perhaps that schedule left them a little unprepared. In UConn’s last two games — a road loss to Notre Dame and an overtime win at home over South Florida — the team grabbed just 31.5% of their offensive rebounding chances.

Meet the Huskies

If you’ve watched any college basketball at all this season, Kemba Walker needs no introduction. The junior guard is averaging 26.1 points per game, while his quick hands on defense have led to 2.4 steals per game.

The biggest knock on Walker’s game coming into the season was his lack of a long-range shot. A lightning-quick guard, Kemba was often stifled by defenses who sagged off thanks to his inability to knock down threes and long-range jumpers. As a member of both Chris Paul’s and LeBron James’ skills camps this summer, Walker put in tons of hours, and developed a long-range threat that has made him nearly unstoppable. Shooting 35.9% from behind the arc this year, Walker now forces defenses to play him tight, allowing him numerous opportunities to blow by and score at the rim or on pull-up jumpers.

Inside, Alex Oriakhi has made huge strides in his sophomore season. The Huskies desperately needed a post presence entering the season, and he has improved his offensive game enough to make an impact. Oriakhi has always been a solid rebounder, but his 10.5 points per game this season are more than double his five point-per-game output from last season. With 8.4 boards per contest, the sophomore is by far the leading rebounder on the team, and his work on the offensive glass is key to keeping the UConn offense clicking.

Jeremy Lamb is the only member of the deep six-man freshman class who has started every game, and his length and athleticism are invaluable at the wing. He’s scoring 7.7 points a night while pulling down 4.8 boards, and his long arms help when he’s out of position on defense.

Roscoe Smith is one of UConn’s highly-touted freshmen
(Photo credit: Fred Beckham/Associated Press)

Fellow freshman Roscoe Smith has joined Lamb in the starting lineup for UConn’s first three Big East conference games. He’s another lengthy, athletic kid, and he embodies the strong, physical post defense that UConn is famous for. This season, he’s averaging nearly two blocks a game and is second on the team with 32 offensive rebounds.

The other UConn big man who has cracked the starting lineup in Big East play is senior Charles Okwandu. The seven-foot Nigerian product isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he runs the floor well in transition, making it difficult for teams to get open looks even on the fast break.

While his raw block numbers aren’t tops on the team, tempo-free stats reveal that Okwandu is the best shot blocker on the team. In his limited minutes, the senior was blocking 12% of all opportunities heading into the Notre Dame game. Had he played enough minutes to qualify for the leaderboard, that would make Okwandu the 17th-best shot blocker in all of D-I basketball.

Coming off the bench, UConn has an exciting freshman guard in Shabazz Napier. Like Walker, he’s incredibly quick with the basketball, and he isn’t afraid to shoot from anywhere on the floor. He brings a much-needed three-point threat to a team that struggled behind the arc last season, and he’s averaging nearly two steals a game. The Longhorns will want to be careful when pushing the ball up after missed UConn baskets, because Napier loves to steal the initial outlet pass and turn it into an easy layup.

Sophomore forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel also comes off the bench for Coach Calhoun, and he provides even more height at the wing. He gives the Huskies a very good rebounder from the 3 or the 4 spot, but coaches are hoping he can also add a three-point threat to his arsenal. So far this season, Coombs-McDaniel is just 6-of-27 from behind the arc, and it’s limited him to about 15 minutes a game.

Freshman Niels Giffey comes to Storrs by way of Berlin, Germany, and he brings the outside shot that so many European players love. Giffey is yet another really tall wingman for UConn, checking in at 6’7″, and his height makes him a valuable defender against teams with solid outside shooters.

Big man Tyler Olander is another freshman for UConn, and he started a handful of games for the team at the beginning of the year. Now, he’s relegated to the bench, and his minutes per game have dropped to about 13 per contest. He’s not a flashy player, but he’s a hard-nosed guy who scraps for rebounds.

In the offseason, senior Donnell Beverly was being pegged as a potential leader in the backcourt, someone who could work with Walker and provide a steady hand when the young team hit speedbumps. As it’s turned out, Napier and Lamb have contributed almost immediately, and Beverly hasn’t been needed for more than nine minutes a game. Statistically, he hasn’t been much of a factor this season, but he will give the younger guards a few minutes of rest this afternoon.

The most recent addition to the team is seven-footer Enosch Wolf, another European product who is still a very raw talent. His enrollment at UConn was delayed by a semester, so he missed out on practically the entire non-conference slate, and as a result, he doesn’t have a real role in the rotation. Enosch has only played six minutes per game in his first three appearances, but his nasty, tenacious play inside will undoubtedly be a key for the team in years to come.

Keys to the game

Make Walker work for his points – It’s no secret that Kemba Walker is going to score a bunch of points this afternoon. He had 12 straight games in which he scored at least 20 points, and the streak was finally broken when he chipped in “only” 19 in the loss to the Irish. What seems to be key, however, is how often Walker keeps the ball away from the rest of the offense when he’s scoring.

When Walker takes more than 40% of his team’s shots, they are 1-2 this season, with the one victory being a narrow four-point win over Wichita State in Maui. If the Longhorns challenge Walker’s shots and provide good help defense when he inevitably beats his man, they can make it much tougher for him to earn those points. If he is taking 20-plus shots tonight, Texas should find itself on top when the buzzer sounds.

Keep the Huskies off the offensive glass – Connecticut makes teams pay by extending their possessions on the offensive end. Make a good stop against the Huskies, and you’re often frustrated by an offensive board leading to an easy putback or an opportunity for the offense to re-set. Against quality competition in their last three games, the UConn frontcourt has looked much more mortal than they did in the first two months of the season. If Texas can limit the second and third-chance points, it will be tough for UConn to steal a road win.

Charles Okwandu isn’t much of an offensive threat
(Photo credit: Joe Raymond/Associated Press)

Attack inside – The frontcourt was the big question mark coming into the season for the Huskies, and it’s still a bit of an enigma as the calendar turns to 2011. Alex Oriakhi has seen a severe drop in his production since Big East play began, averaging just 7.6 points and 3.3 boards per game. While many guys would love to have that line, Oriakhi started the season with three double-doubles in his first five games, including ones against Michigan State and Kentucky.

The biggest limiting factor for Oriakhi in conference play has been foul trouble, as he played just 19 minutes against Pitt and 23 against Notre Dame. If the Longhorns can attack Oriakhi and saddle him with fouls, the Huskies will be forced to rely on Okwandu and Wolf, two guys who lack the offensive threat that Oriakhi brings to the court.

Beat the defense – As with Michigan State just a few weeks ago, the best way to beat the skilled UConn defense is to push the ball in transition and score on the break and on the secondary break. The Huskies do a good job of staying in front of their men in the half-court, and solid help defense allows them to block a ton of shots when opponents do actually beat their man. As Notre Dame proved in a win over UConn on Tuesday night, if Texas can beat the defense down the floor, they will find it much easier to knock off the Huskies.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:11AM

The University of Texas released the non-conference schedule for the men’s basketball team yesterday, and the Longhorns once again have a top-flight list of opponents before Big 12 play. Use the drop-down menu at the top of the page to check out the full season schedule, or simply click this handy-dandy hyperlink.

Texas opens the season with the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, which culminates in a pair of games at Madison Square Garden against two of the tournament’s other three regional hosts — Illinois, Maryland, and Pittsburgh. The Terrapins and Panthers were both NCAA tournament teams in 2010, and both advanced out of the first round. While the Illini did not make it into the Big Dance, hopes are high for their 2010-11 campaign, and ESPN’s Andy Katz even ranked them 15th in his first preseason poll.

Roy Williams and the Heels host Texas in December
(Photo credit: Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

The Longhorns also face a trio of perennial powers in this season’s non-conference slate. Texas first travels to Greensboro, North Carolina to tangle with the Tar Heels on December 18th. As we reported on Twitter last week, the two schools were in talks to move this year’s game to the Bahamas. With this year’s contest staying Stateside, it fulfills North Carolina’s “semi-home” game in the current contract and now leaves the two schools free to revisit the Nassau option in future seasons.

While the Tar Heels were sent reeling following their loss to the Longhorns last December, they seemed to put the pieces together in the post-season and surged to the NIT finals, where they lost to Dayton. With another year under the belts of the young and talented Carolina team — plus the addition of freshman stud Harrison Barnes — the Tar Heels are set for a solid 2010-11 campaign.

Just four days later, Texas heads to East Lansing for an on-campus match-up with Michigan State. The Spartans are coming off their second-straight Final Four, and return all of their key players outside of Raymar Morgan. Although the Longhorns escaped with a victory against MSU in Austin last December, they have historically had trouble with Tom Izzo‘s teams. A true road game against a preseason-Top 5 squad will certainly be a challenge for the Horns.

In early January, Texas hosts Connecticut at the Frank Erwin Center. Like the Tar Heels, the Huskies had an abnormally mediocre season last year. Unlike North Carolina, however, Connecticut managed to knock off the Horns in the midst of their struggles. The Huskies are bringing in a pair of 4-star guards and return Kemba Walker, so expect coach Jim Calhoun to have his team ready for another exciting match-up.

The Longhorns will also face two more major conference opponents in Southern Cal and Arkansas. Texas knocked off both of those teams in 2009-10, and are looking for another clean sweep this year. The Trojans are still embroiled in NCAA drama, as their school’s lawyers are fighting sanctions that were handed down earlier this month. Coach Kevin O’Neill certainly has his hands full rebuilding the program, but his squad matured nicely at the end of last season.

The Razorbacks, meanwhile, will be without star guard Courtney Fortson, who declared for the NBA draft and signed with an agent in April. Arkansas fans are lamenting the decision, as Fortson went unselected in Thursday night’s draft. They can take solace in the fact that sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke will still be on the court for Coach John Pelphrey, though.

In addition to the major names, the Longhorns filled the remainder of their non-conference slate with a slew of mid-major opponents. Navy and Louisiana Tech are Texas’ opening round opponents in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, while in-state foes Lamar, Rice, and Sam Houston State are all making trips to the Frank Erwin Center. North Florida and Coppin State round out the non-conference sked for the Horns with match-ups in December.

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