Posted by Ryan Clark at 8:27AM

#17/18 Texas Longhorns (13-4 overall, 2-2 Big 12) at TCU Horned Frogs (14-3, 1-3)
Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center | Fort Worth, TX | Tip: 6 P.M. CT | TV: ESPNU
Vegas: Texas -3 | KenPom: TCU, 59-58 (54%)

The Texas Longhorns bounced back from a two-game losing streak in impressive fashion on Saturday night, thumping West Virginia by a 77-50 count. The win brought Texas back to level on the young Big 12 season, with tonight’s road game at TCU providing a chance to build a little momentum heading into this weekend’s clash with Kansas.

Although TCU is just 1-3 in the league and has been a doormat since joining from the Mountain West, the Horned Frogs are not nearly the easy win of years past. With some solid transfers and key players finally staying healthy this season, the Horned Frogs finished a fairly soft non-conference schedule with a pristine 13-0 mark. While they haven’t found the same success in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs battled both West Virginia and Baylor in close losses at home, with the latter contest going to overtime.

Texas once again looked like a legitimate contender in Saturday’s dominating win over West Virginia, but if they are going to remain relevant in the conference race, they have to follow it up with a road win tonight. Even though Ken Pomeroy’s model gives TCU the slight edge in this one, the Fort Worth road trip will likely prove to be the second-easiest in the Big 12 this year. The Longhorns cannot afford to give up ground to their competitors by dropping a winnable game away from home.

Trent Johnson finally has a healthy team in his third year
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

By the Numbers

Although the Horned Frogs only played two power-conference opponents in their non-conference slate, their adjusted defensive statistics are still very solid. They are currently ranked 13th in the nation, having allowed an adjusted .902 points per possession, according to Ken Pomeroy. Through four Big 12 games, they have the league’s third-toughest defense, having allowed an adjusted .951 points per possession in conference play.

That stifling defense is anchored by a stout interior D, where the Horned Frogs have a ton of length. TCU’s big men are very patient and disciplined when protecting the rim, as they constantly keep their feet grounded and arms extended to the sky. As a result, opponents find it very difficult to score inside, and don’t usually get bailed out by foul calls. TCU’s two-point field goal defense is second-best in all of D-I, with opponents making just 34.8% of their shots inside the arc.

It only takes an instant for a second and sometimes a third Horned Frog big to collapse on a ball handler in the paint, so Cameron Ridley will need to pick where he left off against West Virginia. He, Prince Ibeh, and the other Texas giants will have to react quickly when they get the ball in the low post, or they will quickly find their window of opportunity closed.

While the big men tend to avoid fouling in the paint, the Horned Frogs do foul quite often when trying to stop dribble penetration, and when battling on the glass. Their defensive free-throw rate, which measures how often a team sends opponents to the line, is the 20th-highest in Division I, with TCU opponents shooting nearly one free throw for every two shots taken. Consequently, TCU opponents score nearly 30% of their points from the line, which is the highest percentage in the nation.

Although TCU gives opponents frequent trips to the charity stripe, they do a great job earning their own trips to the line to balance it out. TCU’s offensive free-throw rate of 51.6 is third-highest in the country, but they fail to take advantage of the opportunities. The Horned Frogs have made just 62.3% of their free throws this season, the 18th-lowest success rate in Division I. They have shot even worse in conference play, making just 61.5% of their free throws against Big 12 opponents.

The extremes demonstrated in free-throw rates are also mirrored in TCU’s rebounding numbers. The Horned Frogs are a top-ten team when it comes to winning back missed shots, while checking in near the bottom third of Division I teams on the defensive glass. TCU reclaims 41% of its own misses, but still allows opponents to snag 32.5% of their own. With the Longhorns posting strong rebounding numbers on both ends of the court, those extra possessions could big a huge factor in tonight’s game.

Meet the Horned Frogs

Kyan Anderson leads TCU in scoring and assists
(Photo credit: Tori Eichberger/Associated Press)

The Horned Frogs are led by senior point guard Kyan Anderson (No. 5), who has ascended TCU’s historical scoring ranks, and now finds himself in the top ten. Although he’s made just 33.7% of his threes this season, his career rate is just shy of 36%, and his range extends well beyond the arc. On a team that doesn’t shoot a ton of threes and is fairly average in its accuracy, Anderson’s ability from behind the arc is something that opponents have to keep in mind.

Typically, Anderson is slicing up defenses with the bounce, and he’s always alert enough to find open teammates when opponents take away a finish at the rim. More than three-quarters of Anderson’s assists come when he’s in the paint, and with an assist rate of 28.2%, Texas defenders off the ball will have to be aware of that fact when trying to help on his penetration.

Anderson is also a fantastic defender who hardly fouls, yet forces opponents to start their offense well behind the arc. He is quick enough to stop dribble penetration, and he makes it very difficult for his man to receive passes. Anderson’s 3.1% personal steal rate is currently ranked 220th in the nation, while his 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes also ranks him 427th in Division I.

Well-traveled senior Trey Zeigler (No. 32) joins Anderson in the backcourt after stints at both Central Michigan and Pitt. Zeigler loves to drive to the rack, and he will quickly spin around defenders who try to cut him off on his path to the rim. He has taken only four of his 113 shots from behind the arc this season, so Texas should give him a nice cushion and make it more difficult for him to penetrate.

Zeigler also rebounds well for his position, constantly finding cracks to get past defenders and snag the offensive boards. To put his offensive rebounding numbers in perspective, Zeigler’s personal rate of 7.1% is better than Connor Lammert’s and just a hair behind that of OU’s Ryan Spangler.

Coach Trent Johnson has made some quick strides in recruiting since arriving in Fort Worth, and the addition of JUCO transfer Kenrich Williams (No. 34) is another nice boost. The 6’7″ sophomore made his first start on Saturday at Texas Tech, and is averaging more than 23 minutes per game.

Williams is very poised with the ball, and has shown the ability to knock down the three, having made 5-of-12 on the year. He has used that threat to shot fake opponents out of position, and then found space in the midrange to sink a jumper. He also owns one of the nation’s 50 best offensive rebounding marks, while his defensive rebounding rate is in the Top 400, and his block percentage is 249th.

Sophomore forward Chris Washburn (No. 33) is another transfer for the Horned Frogs, arriving in Fort Worth by way of UTEP. The 6’8″ lefty can knock down midrange jumpers and hook shots, and does a good job stripping the ball when he helps on defense. Washburn also does a nice job blocking shots, despite looking like he could stand to shed a few pounds.

In the middle, sophomore Karviar Shepherd (No. 14) is a vacuum on the glass and an intimidating presence in the lane. The Horned Frogs don’t often post up their big men, so Shepherd can often be found knocking down midrange jumpers and causing a nuisance in pick-and-pop situations. Unfortunately, he has limited his effectiveness in some games by picking up dumb fouls away from the basket. The Horned Frogs will certainly need him for extended minutes tonight, so Shepherd will have to avoid picking up cheap fouls on the boards and defending outside the lane.

On the occasions where Shepherd has found himself in foul trouble, Amric Fields (No. 4) has had to step up, but the 6’9″ senior is only playing about 16 minutes per game this season. Like Shepherd, Fields can also stretch the floor, but he is not as comfortable with the bounce as Shepherd, and has had issues when teams throw doubles at him.

The other post reserve is 6’8″ junior Devonta Abron (No. 23), who is in his second season with TCU after starting his career at Arkansas. Abron is not nearly as disciplined on defense as the other Horned Frog bigs, but he gobbles up rebounds on both ends of the court and is chipping in 8.5 minutes per game.

Sophomore swingman Brandon Parrish (No. 11) came off the bench in Saturday’s win at Texas Tech, after starting the team’s first 16 games. He is not a strong ball handler, but is a deadly shooter from beyond the arc in catch-and-shoot situations. Parrish’s 41.9% success rate from three is the team’s best, but he’s averaging less than one make per game. On defense, Parrish has had difficulty keeping quick guards in front of him.

Another three-point threat for the Horned Frogs is sophomore Hudson Price (No. 21), the son of former NBA star Mark Price. Although he came in with a reputation as an outside scorer, he’s made just 32% of his threes in college, and has not found much success putting the ball on the floor when opponents chase him off the line.

The final member of TCU’s core rotation is freshman guard Chauncey Collins (No. 1), who is playing about 10 minutes per game. The 6-footer is very quick with the ball on offense, but that speed has not yet translated to good defense. Collins often lets his man get the corner, and he logs quite a few fouls as he struggles to keep opposing guards from penetrating.

On the other end, the freshman has taken 75% of his shots from behind the arc, but connected on just 30% of those attempts. At that rate, the Longhorns can probably afford to give him some space to neutralize his speed.

Keys to the Game

TCU’s defense does not give opponents much space
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

1. Attack with the bounce – The Horned Frogs do a fantastic job defending against typical post-up opportunities, and foul often when opponents put the ball on the floor. The Longhorns can earn themselves quite a few trips to the line if they are aggressive with the ball, and can also open things up a bit for the big men inside by drawing defensive attention with their penetration.

2. Force long jumpers – While the Longhorns should be trying to create things with the bounce, they will also want to take away that aspect of the game for TCU. The Horned Frogs thrive on dribble penetration to create open looks, so Texas needs to give some space on the perimeter and force TCU into taking long jumpers. Although the Horned Frogs have a few guys who can knock down the three, they are not used to relying on the outside shot for much of their scoring

3. Win second-chance battle – With both teams currently among the nation’s ten best offensive rebounders, there will likely be quite a few second-chance opportunities for these teams tonight. If either squad can limit the number of those extended possessions, it will take away a huge aspect of the opposing offense’s scoring. The edge seems to go to Texas here, as the Longhorns have posted much stronger defensive rebounding numbers. However, if they can’t reproduce that success in Fort Worth tonight, the Horns may find themselves in a tight one.

[Ed: This post was revised after publishing to reflect the new rankings in the January 19th polls.]

Posted by Ryan Clark at 2:28PM

#16/15 West Virginia Mountaineers (15-2 overall, 3-1 Big 12) at #20/20 Texas Longhorns (12-4, 1-2)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 5:15 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
Vegas: Texas -3 | KenPom: West Virginia, 68-67 (51%)

It’s no secret that the Big 12 is the nation’s toughest conference this year. You can’t flip on a game without hearing an announcer talking about the depth of the Big 12, and the statistics have backed up that nice bit of conference PR.

Although the ACC has more elite teams near the top of its league than the Big 12 does, there are certainly some nights that the ACC’s good teams can give a sub-par effort and still log a win. In the Big 12, there are eight solid teams, and a pair of average ones that can still put a scare into the rest of the league. With no guarantee games, every win is a precious commodity, and the margin for error is extremely slim.

Texas quickly found that out after conceding home court to Oklahoma in a 21-point thrashing nearly two weeks ago. The Longhorns traveled to Stillwater later that week as underdogs, and played according to script in a game that the Cowboys controlled comfortably. Just like that, the Longhorns found themselves sitting at 1-2 in a conference where just finishing with a winning record will be a badge of honor.

To stay relevant in the nation’s toughest conference, Texas must defend its home court and pick off a few road games that it isn’t favored to win. Thanks to that embarrassment at the hands of the Sooners, home wins become even more important, while the pressure for those road wins has increased. Unfortunately, with eight teams currently ranked in Pomeroy’s Top 50, defending home court is still a tall order. Although Vegas still considers Texas the favorite tonight, Pomeroy’s model gives the Mountaineers the edge in what is essentially a toss-up.

West Virginia’s defense constantly forces turnovers
(Photo credit: Raymond Thompson/Associated Press)

Keys to the game

1) Handle the pressure – West Virginia currently owns the nation’s best turnover percentage, forcing miscues on more than 31% of their defensive possessions. The Longhorns have struggled to hang on to the ball even against mediocre defenses, so they will likely waste quite a few possessions tonight and give up some easy fast break buckets. If they can limit the damage caused by West Virginia’s pressure, they can keep themselves in a position to win.

The Mountaineers love to press after made baskets, but they also will trap opponents when settling into half-court sets. The Longhorn guards need to avoid putting themselves into bad situations near the sideline, and the bigs must react quickly to find the open man and force West Virginia to rotate. With an entire week off to prepare for this game, Texas fans have to hope that the team has been able to make vast improvements in this area.

2) Clean up the glass – The Mountaineers don’t actually shoot the ball that well, relying on the offense generated by their defense and strong offensive rebounding that extends their possessions. West Virginia has the nation’s fourth-best offensive rebounding rate on the year, as they have reclaimed 42.5% of their misses.

In Big 12 play, the Longhorns are an unimpressive sixth in defensive rebounding, allowing opponents to win back nearly 34% of their misses. If Texas can’t handle the West Virginia pressure, the Horns may be able to hang in the game by taking away the Mountaineer edge on the offensive glass. However, if Texas struggles against the pressure and allows the Mountaineers their usual offensive board numbers, it could get very ugly.

3) Limit transition points – Star point guard Juwan Staten (No. 3) is always looking to push the ball in transition, and can be very difficult to stop once he gets into gear, so the Longhorns must be alert as they hustle back on defense. Forward Devin Williams (No. 5) also runs the court well in transition to give them easy finishes at the rim, and the quick, athletic West Virginia lineup does a great job of beating the defense back and staying in their lanes on the break, setting up wide-open transition jumpers.

Texas will already have a tough time limiting points off of turnovers, so the Horns cannot afford to give up easy buckets in transition. The Longhorns have to stop the ball and pick up men quickly, or else they will find it nearly impossible to keep up with West Virginia on the scoreboard.

4) Force long jumpers – West Virginia really struggles to knock down three-pointers, as they have made just 30.5% of their looks from long range this season. However, their team is great at canning their midrange shots, and Staten and Gary Browne, Jr. (No. 14) can also quickly slice through the defense with the bounce.

If Texas can limit penetration and challenge those midrange jumpers, they should force West Virginia to settle for long-range shots, dramatically improving their odds tonight. However, West Virginia frequently frustrates opponents who play 30 seconds of great defense against their constant motion, as Staten and Browne will often find a driving lane in the final seconds of the shot clock. To be able to slow down the Mountaineer offense, the Longhorns must be patient and disciplined until the very last second of their half-court defensive possessions.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 8:04AM

#16/18 Oklahoma Sooners (10-3 overall, 1-0 Big 12) at #10/10 Texas Longhorns (12-2, 1-0)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
Vegas: Texas -6 | KenPom: Texas, 67-64 (63%)


The Texas Longhorns are back in action at the Drum tonight, as they host rival Oklahoma in their Big 12 home opener. Both teams started conference play with a win on Saturday, as the Longhorns dispatched Texas Tech in Lubbock, while the Sooners handled Baylor in Norman.

The conference is so deep this season that seven of its teams are currently found in the Top 25 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. With those teams so closely matched, the result of every game between the seven contenders can quickly swing the projections. Home teams are favored to win anywhere from 60% to 75% of the time in matchups between the top seven, and Pomeroy’s cumulative odds project a log-jam between those teams, with everyone bunched between 12-6 and 10-8 at season’s end. With the margin for error truly razor-thin in this year’s race, every head-to-head result will cast a long shadow.

Oklahoma already defended its home court against another contender on Saturday, and now looks to make a big move with a road win against another. Last year, the Sooners took advantage of missed Texas free throws down the stretch to win in Austin for the first time since 2005. The Longhorns are certainly looking for revenge after being swept by their rival last year, but are also hoping to score their first RPI Top 50 win in three tries. With one of the NCAA tournament regionals taking place in Houston this year, stockpiling big wins for the résumé will take on added importance.

By the Numbers

The first thing you’ll notice when watching the Sooners or looking at their per-possession stats is that they love to get out and run. Oklahoma averages 70.1 possessions per 40 minutes, which is currently the 25th-fastest pace in the country. The Sooners look up and push the ball after both makes and misses by their opponent, and they love to shoot the transition three if they aren’t able to get all the way to the rim.

The Sooners make it very tough for opponents to score
(Photo credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

Oklahoma has also made vast improvements on the defensive side of the ball this season. The Sooners are currently allowing 0.872 adjusted points per possession, which is the 5th-best mark in the country. The team has not had a season with an adjusted defensive efficiency even ranked in the Top 50 since 2008-09, when Blake Griffin still patrolled the paint, so these kinds of defensive numbers are big news in Norman.

The Sooner defense is led by a stable of quick guards that can play right in the jerseys of their opponents and extend pressure beyond the perimeter. Thanks to their speed and good help defense, the Sooners can recover quickly when opponents find an angle to penetrate. Inside, Oklahoma has undersized forwards by Big 12 standards, but they can still clean up shots that make it to the paint, as they’ve posted a 12.5% block rate, currently 69th-best in the nation.

On the other end of the court, one glaring weakness for the Sooners is an inability to win back missed shots. With those undersized forwards and an offense that is focused on the perimeter, Oklahoma has quite a few one-and-done possessions each game. The Sooners win back just 29.5% of their missed shots, an OR% that is currently 227th out of 351 Division I teams.

Since the Sooners have a perimeter-oriented offense, they also don’t earn many trips to the free throw line. Their free-throw rate of 30.3% is one of the 50 lowest in the country, which means that OU earns roughly three free throws for every 10 field goals they attempt. Despite having guards that all possess the ability to get to the rack, Oklahoma will often settle for jump shots rather than working the ball for a better look.

Meet the Sooners

At the point, 6’0″ sophomore Jordan Woodard (No. 10) sets the table for the Oklahoma offense. He pushes the ball really well in transition and has a knack for finding the open shooter before the defense gets set, leading to numerous threes. Woodard nearly broke the record for assists by a freshman at OU last year, and he’s off to another strong start this year, logging dimes on 27.6% of the baskets scored when he’s on the court.

A common recipient of Woodard’s transition assists is 6’4″ junior guard Buddy Hield (No. 24). The Bahamian product is Oklahoma’s most consistent three-point threat, as he’s knocked down 38 of his 100 looks on the year. He also takes nearly 30% of the team’s shots when he’s on the floor, so the Sooners really struggle when he has an off night.

Hield can be very streaky from beyond the arc, and often heats up in a hurry. He can miss his first four or five long-range attempts in a game, and then suddenly hit transition threes on back-to-back possessions. If the Sooners go on a big run during a ballgame, chances are very good that Hield provided a flurry of threes to spur the surge.

The third man in Oklahoma’s three-guard look is 6’4″ junior Isaiah Cousins (No. 11). Cousins actually has a higher three-point percentage than Hield, but is a little more judicious with his shot selection. He’s coming off a 4-for-8 performance from long range against Baylor, and has connected on nearly 44% of his attempts this season.

Inside, 6’8″ forward Ryan Spangler (No. 00) is a beast on the defensive glass, grabbing more than 20% of misses by opponents when he’s on the court. That stat doesn’t even tell the entire story, as his quick hops and persistent effort often lead to opponents fumbling the ball out of bounds and giving it to OU.

Spangler also has a nice face-up game on offense, and is very accurate from long range. Although he only takes about one three-pointer per game, his 43.8% success rate makes opponents bite on his frequent shot fakes from the perimeter, which open up driving lanes for the big man. The Longhorn forwards have a very bad habit of biting on fakes, so they will have to stay grounded when Spangler catches the ball on the perimeter.

TaShawn Thomas has made an immediate impact at OU
(Photo credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

The final piece of Oklahoma’s starting five is Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas (No. 35), a 6’8″ senior who received a waiver from the NCAA to play right away for Coach Lon Kruger. Thomas is another face-up big man for Oklahoma, as he possesses adequate handles to drive against opposing forwards. His dribble is a little loose, so he is susceptible to the quick hands of guards helping down from the perimeter. Unlike Spangler, Thomas does not shoot it from behind the arc, but he can stretch the floor with midrange jumpers.

The starting five for Oklahoma eat up a ton of the team’s minutes, but are all well conditioned enough to play long stretches at the team’s breakneck pace. However, with a thin, untested bench, foul trouble could be a problem against the depth of Texas.

In the backcourt, OU’s main options are 6’4″ Frank Booker (No. 10) and 6’1″ JUCO transfer Dinjiyl Walker (No. 2), who combine for about 26 minutes per game. Booker is a very scrappy player who hustles all over the court and isn’t afraid to take a charge in the paint. Offensively, he lives on the perimeter, with more than three-quarters of his shots coming from outside. Unfortunately, he is not very accurate, with just 22% of his threes going down so far.

Walker is a shifty guard that varies his speed and uses hesitation dribbles to find cracks in the defense. He also takes quite a few shots from outside, with nearly half of his looks coming from beyond the arc. Like Booker, Walker is not very accurate, having made just 28.6% of his threes through 13 games.

Down low, the Sooners also have a pair of reserve options in the frontcourt. D.J. Bennett (No. 31) is a 6’8″ senior who is averaging about 10 minutes per game. He is a strong rebounder and has great timing for blocking shots, particularly as he comes over in help situations. However, his preference for trying to log blocks also leads to quite a few fouls, as he averages more than eight fouls per 40 minutes.

Freshman Khadeem Lattin (No. 12) is 6’9″ and incredibly athletic, but has only played about 11 minutes per game. His biggest impact as a freshman has been on the defensive end, as he’s logged some impressive blocks when he’s wiped fast-break buckets right off the board after hustling back in transition. Like Bennett, Lattin still gets whistled quite a bit when defending inside, as he averages nearly six fouls per 40 minutes.

Keys to the Game

1. Get back in transition – The Sooners take nearly 27% of their shots in transition, a rate that is currently 31st-highest in D-I, according to Hoop Math. Texas needs to get back in transition, quickly find the shooters, and stop the ball, as Hield and Cousins do not need much space to sink a three.

While Oklahoma has shown patience when having to play half-court offense against a zone, they tend to settle for quick, contested jumpers against man-to-man defenses that stop them on the break. If the Longhorns can limit transition points and force Oklahoma into tough jumpers, their advantage on the glass should severely limit scoring chances for the Sooners.

2. Don’t turn it over – A big part of the challenge for Texas in stopping Oklahoma’s transition offense will be limiting the turnovers that have plagued them all season long. The Sooners don’t force a ton of miscues, but the Longhorns have proven that they can give it away even against low-pressure defenses. In addition to not giving OU runout opportunities by turning it over, the Longhorns also must avoid bad outside shots, as those can start breaks just as easily as bad passes can.

The Longhorns can’t lose track of Cousins or Hield
(Photo credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

3. Stay glued to the shooters – Even though Thomas and Spangler have both shown the ability to knock down jumpers, the Longhorns should be content with letting those two take shots. Texas needs to focus on shadowing Hield and Cousins all over the court, and cannot allow them many open looks.

The Horns had some issues with ball-screen defense against Stanford, which could definitely pose a problem again tonight. If Texas gets hung up on screens, or chooses to go under them, Hield and Cousins will quickly make them pay in this game. However, if the Longhorns can force that pair to take a bunch of challenged shots in order to earn their points, Oklahoma will find it much tougher to snag a road win tonight.

4. Pound it down low – Texas has a distinct advantage inside, and needs to try to get the ball into the paint for easy points. In addition to getting the offense going for Texas, a focus on scoring inside may also tag Spangler and Thomas with fouls.

The Sooners don’t have much depth in the frontcourt, and the style of play differs quite a bit from their starters to their reserves. Bennett and Lattin don’t have the accuracy of Spangler and Thomas on long jumpers, so it makes it even easier for the Longhorns to defend when those players are used in screens for the OU shooters. If Spangler and Thomas are sitting on the bench for extended minutes tonight, the Longhorns have a good chance to defend their home court.

[Ed: This post was revised after publishing to reflect the new rankings for both teams in the January 5th polls.]

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:50AM

#11/10 Texas Longhorns (11-2 overall, 0-0 Big 12) at Texas Tech Red Raiders (10-3, 0-0)
United Supermarkets Arena | Lubbock, TX | Tip: 1 P.M. CT | TV: ESPNU
Vegas: Texas -8 | KenPom: Texas, 64-57 (80%)

The most anticipated Big 12 season in years is just hours away, and the Texas Longhorns open things up in Lubbock this afternoon. From top to bottom, the Big 12 is the deepest league in the country, currently boasting the nation’s top RPI, while also earning the top conference rating from Ken Pomeroy, by a wide margin.

Pomeroy’s conference ranking takes into account the offensive and defensive efficiencies of every team in the leauge. To put the first seven weeks of the Big 12’s dominance into perspective, the ACC — which currently is ranked second — is closer to the fifth-ranked SEC than they are to first, and are nearly as close to the Pac-12 in sixth. There’s the Big 12, a big gulf, and then everyone else.

With such a deep league, the names of numerous Big 12 contenders have littered the pages and websites of the college basketball media. While a few pundits have dared to pick Texas, most have stuck with Kansas. And why not? Over the last ten years, the Jayhawks have taken advantage of a nearly automatic home-court advantage, great coaching, and great talent to win at least a share of the league crown every single year.

To take the title this year, Texas, Kansas, and the laundry list of contenders will have to survive a meat-grinder schedule. Eight of the league’s ten teams are in the Top 50 of Pomeroy’s rankings, while K-State sits just outside the Top 100, and even Texas Tech is ranked 141st. The usual formula for a conference title — defend your home court, sweep the bottom of the league, and pick off a tough road win or two — might not even be possible this season. The “bottom of the league” consists of just two teams, which both have great home courts and a roster of talented parts that haven’t yet put it together.

For the Longhorns, their difficult task became a little easier when they received some much anticipated good news yesterday morning. After breaking a bone in his wrist in the third game of the year, point guard Isaiah Taylor is back for Texas, just in time to lead his team into the melee of the Big 12 conference race.

For a Longhorn team that has posted abysmal turnover numbers the last few weeks, his return comes as a huge relief. While Taylor can’t make every pass and eliminate all of the team’s miscues, it’s hard to imagine that things won’t get at least a little better with him at the helm, and other players back in their natural roles.

Texas may also get a bit of a boost this afternoon from Mother Nature. Even though it’s been nearly a decade since United Supermarket Arena was consistently full for conference games, numerous Big 12 teams have fallen victim to upsets on the High Plains over the years. With winter storms blanketing the Texas Panhandle last night and this morning, the USA will likely be very empty. As long as Texas doesn’t fall into the lull that sometimes accompanies early-afternoon games and sparsely-attended contests, they should find it a little easier to survive the annual Lubbock trip.

By the Numbers

In Year Two of the Tubby Smith era at Texas Tech, you can see that the pieces are beginning to fall into place. Smith landed the best recruiting class that the Red Raiders had seen in 11 years, which gives them the kind of athletes that can compete in a major power conference.

Those athletes are still learning to compete at this level, as evidenced by their poor offensive efficiency and struggles against zone defenses. The Red Raiders are scoring jut 97.6 adjusted points per 100 possessions, which currently ranks 227th out of 351 Division I teams. Thanks to an ugly 30.5% mark from beyond the arc, opponents are able to play sagging zone defenses and dare Tech to beat them with long jumpers.

Another part of the problem is that when the Red Raiders do manage to get it inside, they aren’t able to turn that into points. Tech currently has the nation’s fourth-highest field goal rate, earning a free throw for every 1.86 field goals they try. However, they are leaving a ton of points at the line, converting on just 66.9% of their attempts. Add in a sub-optimal turnover percentage of 20.5%, and it becomes clear that the Red Raiders are still often shooting themselves in the foot on offense.

On the other side of the ball, Coach Smith has his team playing much better defense. The year prior to his arrival, the Red Raiders had an adjusted defensive efficiency that was ranked 254th out of the 347 teams in D-I at the time. Last year, they improved to 110th, and are currently sitting at 81st with 95.9 adjusted points allowed per 100 possessions.

That number will certainly rise against a Big 12 loaded with efficient offenses, but it’s another sign of the improvement Tubby has brought to Tech. The Red Raiders do a good job pinching from help positions to discourage penetration, and they close out nearly three-quarters of their defensive stops by securing the rebound. For a team that often played matador defense in recent years — an appropriate style, considering their mascot — any progress is worthy of note.

Meet the Red Raiders

Although Tech lost star Jordan Tolbert and sharpshooter Dusty Hannahs to offseason transfers, a seven-man recruiting class has lessened the impact of those departures. It’s also given Coach Smith a blend of experience and youth, skewing towards the latter, which will set the building blocks for his rebuilding project.

Tubby has a very deep bench, and he uses it to the fullest. The Red Raiders have a core rotation of seven players who all average between 20 and 25 minutes, along with three other role players who typically see some action in each game. Tech doesn’t use this depth to play an up-tempo, trapping style, but it does offer Tubby a chance to immediately pull players when he sees a teaching opportunity.

The player who sees the most minutes is senior guard Robert Turner (No. 14), who was Tubby’s first recruit as a JUCO transfer two summers ago. Although he runs the point and has the ability to slash to the lane, Tech’s struggles against zone defenses often result in him dribbling the air out of the ball before putting up a challenged or off-balance shot before the 35-second buzzer.

Turner has the team’s second-highest percentage of shots taken, as he’s responsible for 26.6% of the attempts when he’s on the court. Unfortunately, he has an effective field-goal percentage of just 43.7%. He does somewhat make up for that lack of production by jumping passing lanes on defense and stripping it from unsuspecting guards to start the break.

The highest percentage of shots taken belongs to newcomer Devaugntah Williams (No. 0), a JUCO transfer from Missouri-West Plains. Williams plays about 24 minutes per game and takes more than 30% of the shots when he’s on the court, but is much more effective than Turner. That is a result of good speed with the ball and the ability to quickly change direction while penetrating. Although it was a little more wild than his usual drives, his spin and drive to the rack with two seconds left against Auburn provided the game winner.

Williams is also a very streaky shooter from behind the arc, and the team’s struggles in two recent losses in Las Vegas underscore the importance of his long-range game to their success. On the season, Williams has made 37.5% of his three-point attempts, despite going 0-for-14 from long range during that two-game losing streak. Williams also had a stretch earlier in the year where he made 14-of-23 in a five-game stretch, so his accuracy tonight could be the biggest factor in Tech’s output.

On the wing, freshman Justin Gray (No. 5) has started 12 of the team’s 13 games. He’s a very long 6’5″ and has great hops that aid him in quickly springing up to block shots. His individual block rate of 4.2% ranks third on the team and 299th in Division I. That bounce also helps to make him a good rebounder from the wing, something that is important for a Tech team which will be a bit undersized against Texas today.

Down low, two newcomers anchor the frontcourt for Coach Smith. Zach Smith (No. 11) is a really exciting 6’8″ forward, who was one of the top 20 seniors to come out of the state of Texas last season. He is very quick and slippery with the ball for a guy his size, and he passes very well from all over the court. Smith injured his back on December 19th, played just 14 minutes in a loss to Loyola Chicago three days later, and sat out of the loss to Houston. However, he returned to action on Monday night against North Texas and showed no ill effects of the injury, logging 34 minutes and stuffing the stat sheet.

Norense Odiase (No. 32) is the man in the middle, and man is the operative word for this 6’9″, 270-pound freshman. He moves remarkably well for a guy his size, although he does clearly struggle when opponents push the pace for extended stretches. Odiase is very strong with the ball down low, and is a solid rebounder and shot blocker. He’s also the team’s biggest offender when it comes to leaving points at the line, as he draws 5.5 fouls per game, but has made less than 59% of his free throws.

Off the bench, Randy Onwuasor (No. 3) is another guard that plays solid perimeter defense and can jump-start Tech with a take-and-make. He’s joined by Toddrick Gotcher (No. 20), a junior guard that can easily create for himself and teammates with the bounce, thanks in large part to a knack for mixing speeds.

Rounding out the bench options in the backcourt is freshman Keenan Evans (No. 12), a lightning-quick guard who can easily burst to the rim or drain a three from well beyond the arc. Evans has connected on 41.2% of his threes in his limited minutes, and will likely be an impact player for Tech in future seasons.

Down low, most of the minutes are eaten up by the two starters, but Tubby does rotate in a quartet of forwards. Senior Clark Lammert (No. 35) averages less than eight minutes per game, and is best known for taking charges and being the brother of Connor Lammert. Sophomore Alex Foster (No. 34) is used even more sparingly, likely due to his hideous 35.7% turnover rate. Fellow sophomore Aaron Ross (No. 15) should prove to be a solid option down low, but he’s still getting into game shape after seriously injuring his knee in April. He returned to action on December 14th and has averaged less than seven minutes in six appearances.

The bulk of the frontcourt reserve minutes go to freshman Isaiah Manderson (No. 1), but he is still only seeing the court for about 11 minutes per game. He’s a long and lean 6’10”, with probably an additional two inches of height coming from his hair. Manderson has a quick release on a midrange jumper that is smooth, albeit inconsistent. At this point, his biggest problem is really poor defense, and that will likely limit his minutes under Coach Smith.

Keys to the Game

1. Pack it in – The Longhorns have the size to make things very tough inside for most opponents, and Tech’s inability to shoot from outside means that the Longhorn guards can make things even tougher by sagging off enough to limit penetration. As long as Texas doesn’t let Williams or Evans go off from long range, they should not have much to worry about in terms of threes and long jumpers.

2. Control the basketball – With Taylor finally returning for Texas, this will be the first chance to see if the Longhorns can make a drastic cut in their turnover rate. The Red Raiders have forced mistakes on 22.3% of their defensive possessions, albeit against a relatively weak schedule. Even though Tech’s defense is pretty good, the Longhorns will face much tougher in the coming weeks. Improving ball control is not only important to avoid an embarrassing upset today, but also to contend in the league this season.

3. Clean the glass – Tech has posted solid rebounding numbers on both ends of the court, but they have not faced many teams with the size of Texas. The Red Raiders currently boast rebounding marks of 36.8% and 72.1% on the offensive and defensive ends, respectively, despite playing most of their minutes with forwards that are 6’8″ and 6’9″.

Against LSU, a team with an effective height that’s 28th in the nation according to Pomeroy, the Red Raiders managed an offensive rebounding rate of just 25% in an overtime loss. The Longhorns should present a similar challenge for Tech tonight, and they must exploit that advantage to prevent Tech from hanging around and being in position to steal an upset in the final minutes.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 5:15PM

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.

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