2.22.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 1:53PM

#19/17 Texas Longhorns (20-6 overall, 9-4 Big 12) at #8/8 Kansas Jayhawks (20-6, 11-2)
Allen Fieldhouse | Lawrence, KS | Tip: 6:30 P.M. CT | TV: ESPNU
Vegas: Kansas -10 | Pomeroy: Kansas, 81-71

The Texas Longhorns sit all alone in second place in the Big 12 as they head to Lawrence for tonight’s matchup with Kansas. But at two games behind the conference-leading Jayhawks, tonight’s game is essentially make-or-break for Texas as it tries to earn a piece of its first Big 12 title since 2008. A loss at Allen Fieldhouse would put the Longhorns three back with four games to go, practically ensuring that Kansas would win at least a share of the Big 12 title for a 10th-consecutive season.

While the Longhorns took care of KU in Austin at the beginning of the month, winning at Phog Allen is an entirely different beast. In the last six-plus years, the Jayhawks are an incredible 54-2 at home in Big 12 play, with one of those losses coming at the hands of Texas in 2011. The margin for error is very, very slim for the Longhorns tonight if they hope to pull off the rare road win in Lawrence and stay alive in the title hunt.

Meet the Jayhawks

For a detailed look at the KU roster, check out LRT’s preview of the February 1st game between these two teams.

The First Meeting

Cam Ridley and the Texas defense stifled Kansas early
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Texas dominated things early against the Jayhawks in Austin, stifling Kansas’ interior attack in a first half where KU shot just 25.8% from the field. The Texas bigs stayed home and protected the paint, cleaning up dribble penetration and providing timely help when KU found space down low. Isaiah Taylor had the floater working in a masterful performance, repeatedly finding cracks in the Kansas defense and attacking quickly.

The Longhorns took a 15-point lead to the locker room and held a double-digit advantage the rest of the way. With Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid struggling for Kansas, Wayne Selden, Jr. flipped the switch at half and played much more aggressively in the second. He scored 21 points on the afternoon, knocking down 50% of his shots from the field.

Both teams did a fantastic job on the offensive glass, effectively negating the extra chances earned by their opponents. The Longhorns won 48.7% of their misses back, while Kansas reclaimed 40.5% of theirs on the other end. Although Kansas won the second-chance point battle by a 16-11 count, timely Longhorn putbacks were key to building a big lead late in the first half.

In the end, Texas knocked off the Jayhawks, 81-69, earning a fourth-consecutive win over ranked opponents. The Longhorns pulled to within one game of KU in the league standings and solidified their NCAA tournament résumé with a convincing win over the No. 1 team in the RPI.

Since Then…

Although the Jayhawks have struggled on the road this month, they continue to take care of business at home. Kansas dispatched a tough West Virginia team with excellent execution in the final five minutes and absolutely obliterated TCU in a second half where the Horned Frogs seemed content to just watch the Jayhawks waltz to the hoop.

Kansas suffered its only other conference loss in Manhattan on February 10th, but the team showed grittiness in a late-game comeback that forced overtime. The Wildcats led by nine with just 1:53 to go, but a key steal by Brannen Greene, free-throw problems for KSU’s Wesley Iwundu, and a huge, last-second putback by Wiggins on his own miss all led to an extra period of basketball. In the overtime, Kansas State managed to escape with a key home win, but Kansas proved their mental toughness in the frantic comeback.

Wayne Selden and KU are on the verge of a Big 12 title
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Just four nights ago, it was again Wiggins who provided the heroics for Kansas on the road, but this time the Jayhawks didn’t ultimately lose. Down by one with 16 seconds left, KU fed Embiid on the block for a final chance. He was stripped by Tech’s Dejan Kravic, but Wiggins scooped up the loose ball in the lane and put it in for the winning bucket. With Texas losing at Iowa State on the same night, KU’s thrilling victory put them on the verge of winning yet another conference title.

Keys to the Game

1) Strong interior defense – Although Kansas has shooters, the Jayhawks have always been and will always be an inside-out team with Bill Self at the helm. The Longhorns didn’t choose to double-team Embiid or Perry Ellis when the teams met in Austin, yet still played very sound interior defense that frustrated KU all afternoon.

Texas will once again have to stay home in the lane, but must also avoid foul trouble in the frontcourt. Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh made key contributions in the earlier win over Kansas, but it’s obviously preferential to have Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley out there for as many minutes as possible.

2) Don’t settle for jumpers – Texas played right into Iowa State’s hands on Tuesday night, particularly Javan Felix, who took every open look that the Cyclones gave him. He shot 15 three-pointers and was just 27.3% from the field, although in a game where Texas was even missing point-blank shots, it’s tough to say that made a huge difference.

However, against a Kansas team with an imposing frontcourt, the temptation to settle for jumpers will again be there. Taylor did a good job attacking with the bounce against Kansas in the first game, and the Horns repeatedly found post players in the paint when the Jayhawks pushed out and denied dribble penetration. The Longhorns need to make the same commitment tonight to driving and to feeding the post if they want to have any chance to win. Having a player take 15 threes will be a recipe for disaster for UT tonight, unless Baylor’s Brady Heslip somehow transfers this afternoon and is immediately eligible.

3) Clean up the glass – The Longhorns didn’t do a great job on the defensive glass in the first meeting, but they balanced things out by winning nearly half of their own misses back. Texas must again be competitive on the boards tonight against a KU team that is ranked third in the Big 12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates. If the Longhorns are dominated on the glass on either end of the floor, the disparity will likely be far too much to overcome in a road environment where there is little margin for error.

4) Show poise under pressure – The Big 12’s three toughest road venues are Allen Fieldhouse, Bramlage Coliseum, and Hilton Coliseum. You can argue which one is second and which one is third, but Phog Allen is undoubtedly the toughest place to play. The Longhorns have gone 0-2 so far this season in those hostile environments, including a blowout loss at K-State.

If Texas is going to hang in this game long enough to have a chance for the upset, the team will have to withstand a few Kansas rallies. When the Jayhawks get cranking, Allen Fieldhouse is a cacophony of noise and emotion. If the Longhorns can fight through that and throw a counter, they might be able to give Kansas a good battle tonight. If they don’t, Kansas can turn it into a rout in a matter of seconds.

2.01.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:01AM

#6/7 Kansas Jayhawks (16-4 overall, 7-0 Big 12) at #25/ARV Texas Longhorns (16-4, 5-2)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN

The Big 12’s two hottest teams meet at the Frank Erwin Center this afternoon, as the Jayhawks and Longhorns put their seven-game and five-game winning streaks on the line. Texas is returning to action after a week off, and is looking to notch its fourth consecutive win over a ranked opponent. It was a feat that had not been seen since North Carolina ran a four-game gauntlet in 1996-97, until Kansas did it just a few weeks ago. With seven different Big 12 teams bouncing in and out of the polls in conference play, the tough tests come often, but only Kansas and Texas have managed to string together lengthy winning streaks in the country’s top conference.

Texas’ streak has propelled the team from a spot on the bubble to being safely in the NCAA picture — for now. With the Big 12 schedule providing a stiff test night after night, and with the league’s three toughest road tests still to come for the Longhorns, there’s still the danger of a losing skid that could muddy Texas’ NCAA picture. Another win this afternoon over a ranked opponent — and the No. 1 team according to RPI — would give Texas even more insurance against any late-season stumbles.

Bill Self is fired up about his team’s 7-0 Big 12 start
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, Kansas is in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and is already getting close to running away with another Big 12 title. With Allen Fieldhouse providing the league’s strongest home-court advantage, challengers to the throne have to pick off wins when the Jayhawks hit the road. Kansas has avoided two potential potholes already, surviving road tests in both Norman and Ames, and the team still has five games left against Texas Tech, TCU, and West Virginia.

The number of good opportunities left for Big 12 contenders to trip up the Jayhawks are dwindling, with this afternoon providing one of the best chances remaining. Considering that KU already leads Oklahoma by 1.5 games and Texas by two full games, another Jayhawk win today could make that conference lead insurmountable.

By the numbers

Kansas has the nation’s fourth-best offense when it comes to offensive efficiency, and the team does it by destroying opponents in the paint. The Jayhawks score an adjusted 1.201 points per possession, a number that has actually gone up against tougher Big 12 competition. In conference games, KU has scored 1.214 raw points per possession. On the year, Kansas averages 37.5 points per game in the paint, which makes up 46.8% of its scoring.

Kansas has an impressive frontcourt that can easily score at the rim, plus guards and wings that can get a piece of the paint. While that all leads to quite a few points in the lane, Kansas’ excellent offensive rebounding numbers also play a role in the team’s interior scoring. The Jayhawks reclaim 36.6% of their missed shots, and frequently have a player snatching up a weakside board for the easy putback.

If keeping up with that kind of offensive efficiency wasn’t tough enough for Jayhawk opponents, they also find it very difficult to score against a stout Kansas defense. KU allows 0.953 adjusted points per possession, a defensive efficiency mark that ranks 28th in the nation. That defensive dominance is thanks in large part to a block percentage of 15.8%. With a 7-foot freshman man-child starting at center, and quality depth in the KU frontcourt, opponents find it tough to score inside for the entire 40 minutes.

One area of concern for the Jayhawks is their trouble hanging on to the basketball. On the year, Kansas has coughed it up once for every five possessions, a turnover rate that is among Division I’s bottom third. In conference play, the problem has become worse, with Kansas losing the ball on 21.1% of its possessions. Against Baylor’s zone, the Jayhawks repeatedly made poor passes, and second-half backcourt pressure from Oklahoma State led to KU unraveling and a Cowboy comeback.

The fact that Kansas can give up so many possessions and still have the fourth-best offense in the country is downright frightening. If and when the Jayhawks can manage to clean up their passing, it’s hard to imagine any team being able to keep pace with their scoring.

Meet the Jayhawks

On a team with three recruits who played in the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic, Andrew Wiggins (No. 22) stands out as the freshman who arrived in Lawrence with the most hype. Although he hasn’t wowed in every single game, he has had numerous plays in each one that underscore the athleticism and talent he possesses. Wiggins has a strong, quick first step that helps him blast past defenders when he slashes from the wings, and he seems to hit another gear when he runs the open floor in transition. The freshman also loves to spin like a top when he drives from the perimeter, slipping past defenders that thought they had contained his penetration.

Wiggins has certainly struggled with his turnovers in conference play, and had a very tough time against Baylor’s zone. He looked afraid to shoot against the closing length of the Bears, and passed up numerous opportunities to drive and attack the gaps. Instead, he tried to make passes that teammates weren’t expecting, or decided to dish in midair. He coughed it up four times against Baylor, and has lost it on 21.1% of his possessions against Big 12 opponents.

Defenses have a hard time slowing down Joel Embiid
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

While Wiggins was the biggest freshman name for KU in the preseason, 7-foot center Joel Embiid (No. 21) has quickly become the team’s biggest star with his incredible performances. The big man only started playing basketball two years ago, but already has impeccable, smooth footwork and a variety of post moves. He understands how to get good position and take the right angles, so most defenders are beat before the entry pass is even made.

Teams have repeatedly tried to double and triple team Embiid on the catch, but he keeps the ball high and passes well against the pressure. He also uses those passing skills to his advantage in one-on-one situations, making hard pass fakes to get defenders off-balance before he moves to the rack.

Defensively, Joel has become a monster. His block rate of 12.2% ranks him 13th in the country, and he’s logged ridiculous seven and eight-block performances against UTEP and Oklahoma State. When he’s not blocking shots, he’s forcing opponents to take tough ones, and he’s constantly cleaning up the glass. Embiid is ranked in the Top 75 in both offensive (13%) and defensive (24%) rebounding percentages.

The biggest knock on Embiid’s game right now is how often he gets called for fouls, especially for throwing elbows. He was ejected for sizing up Kansas State’s Nino Williams on a rebound and popping him in the face, then earned technicals in each of the team’s next two wins, against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. While the latter two weren’t nearly as egregious as his cheap shot on Williams, Embiid now has the attention of officials, and that is going to make things a little tougher on him.

The third stud freshman is Wayne Selden, Jr. (No. 1), an excellent shooter and slasher who has been content playing sidekick to his star teammates. Coach Bill Self wasn’t as happy with that deferential attitude, and he has implored Selden to be more aggressive and take his open looks. The message finally sunk in as the calendar turned to conference play, with Wayne scoring 44 points in the team’s first two conference games, while posting an effective field goal percentage of 74.1%.

After those two solid performances, Selden went through a mini-slump. He shot just 33% from the field in the team’s next three games, including a 21.4% mark behind the arc. The cure, as it is for many teams and players, was a game against TCU. Selden shot 55.6% from the field against the Horned Frogs, scoring 12 points, while logging four assists. He followed that up with another solid outing against Iowa State on Wednesday night and seems primed to once again fill the role Coach Self envisioned for him.

At the point, senior Naadir Tharpe (No. 10) is making things click. Jayhawk fans have always been tough on the point guard, but this year he seems to be providing the quiet, steady leadership that a team of young stars needs. Tharpe’s assist rate of 30.3% is tops on the team, but he’s not simply a pass-first point guard. The senior is deadly coming off of high ball screens, as he loves to pull up and drill 18-footers.

Tharpe is also incredibly dangerous behind the arc, where he’s hit 43.8% of his long-range looks. The Jayhawks move the ball very quickly and take advantage of opponents who sell out to try to stop KU’s interior threat. Often that means swinging the ball around and hitting opposite post when teams double on the block, but it also leads to quite a few open looks for Tharpe and others waiting on the perimeter.

The fifth starter for Kansas is sophomore Perry Ellis (No. 34), a Wichita product who finally emerged as a big-time threat in last year’s Big 12 tournament. Ellis carried that momentum into this season, and he’s flourishing in the frontcourt as teams struggle to slow down Embiid. Perry has a good midrange jumper and an excellent face-up game from about 15 feet and in, plus great passing ability from the block and high post. Teams have not only tried doubling Embiid in the post, but have also thrown pressure at Ellis to try to force mistakes. Like Embiid, Ellis is able to find open teammates and get them easy looks.

While it’s tough to match the size and skillset of Kansas’ 7-foot Cameroonian center, the Jayhawks do have the luxury of a pair of solid frontcourt reserves. Jamari Traylor (No. 31) and graduate transfer Tarik Black (No. 25) are two imposing figures at 6’8″, 220 pounds and 6’9″, 260 pounds, respectively. Traylor has a really nice face-up game for a guy his size, and he also can whip some impressive passes when he puts the ball on the court and draws defensive attention with his drives.

Tarik Black would be in the starting five for most teams
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Black turns into a wall when he sets ball screens and is a tough defender in the paint. In addition to blocking shots and cleaning up the defensive glass, he has also proven capable of planting his feet and drawing the charge, as he did three times against Kansas State earlier this year. Getting tagged with an offensive foul and turning it over is bad enough, but you have to imagine running into someone built like Black probably makes it even worse.

Unfortunately, Black sprained his ankle in a Big Monday win over Baylor and has missed the team’s last two games. He is expected to play this afternoon against Texas, but his mobility could understandably be limited. The outlook is not as good for freshman guard Conner Frankamp (No. 23), who will likely miss his second straight game due to a knee injury.

With Frankamp out, that leaves Kansas with Frank Mason (No. 0) and sparingly-used gunner Brannen Greene (No. 14) as the bench options in the backcourt. Mason, a freshman, has come on strong in recent games after struggling a bit as the team’s backup point. The 5’11” guard has a great first step and can penetrate at will, and his solid performances in Big 12 play have earned him even more playing time. Recently, Kansas has frequently put both Mason and Tharpe on the floor at once, giving the team two good ballhandlers to go with Selden or Wiggins on the wing.

Keys to the game

1) Limit offensive rebounds – Texas has done a phenomenal job on the glass this season, but the Horns have yet to face a frontcourt like this. The home loss to Oklahoma was due to Texas’ inability to clean up the defensive glass, and the team also struggled against a good-rebounding Kansas State team. The Jayhawks are already very tough to slow down, so the Longhorns must limit the number of second chances and easy putbacks that KU earns today.

2) Rotate quickly – Kansas moves the ball quickly and takes advantage of opponents who elect to double team. Cameron Ridley might find it difficult to keep up with the slippery Embiid, which means that Texas may have to risk using a second defender. If the Horns do, they will have to rotate quickly to keep up with KU’s ball movement and prevent wide open looks or easy cuts to the rim.

3) Take advantage of mistakes – The young Jayhawks have turned the ball over frequently this season, although many of their turnovers tend to be of the dead-ball variety. With Kansas boasting a strong interior defense, the Longhorns need to get as many points as they can in transition and on the secondary break. The Jayhawks gave up quite a few hoops to Oklahoma State off of turnovers, and they repeatedly lost Baylor’s Brady Heslip on the break, allowing open threes. If the Longhorns can get a nice chunk of points in the open court this afternoon, they should keep themselves in position to pull off the upset.

4) Stretch the floor – With the Jayhawks so strong inside, teams have found the most success when they can stretch the floor and pull the KU bigs out of the lane. Kansas typically rushes the ball screens with their posts, because their defense rotates well and eliminates easy buckets at the rim. However, this does leave them exposed to the pick-and-pop, something that Baylor and Isaiah Austin took advantage of last Monday. Both Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert have a nice three-point stroke, so the Longhorns need to exploit that tendency and have the bigs knock down a few triples after setting high ball screens.

2.16.13
Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:58PM

Texas Longhorns (11-13 overall, 3-8 Big 12) at #14/13 Kansas Jayhawks (20-4, 8-3)
Allen Fieldhouse | Lawrence, KS | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #245

There is no doubt that the suits at ESPN expected a little more glitz when they booked College GameDay at Allen Fieldhouse for tonight’s tilt between Texas and Kansas. The Longhorns were expected to be part of a deep Big 12 pack this year, chasing the perennial preseason favorite Jayhawks. That was long before an NCAA committee suspended Texas guard Myck Kabongo for two-thirds of the season, and well before Kansas lost three straight games for the first time in nearly eight years.

Myck Kabongo made his season debut Wednesday night
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Texas scuttled to a 2-8 start in conference play without their sophomore point guard, yet still managed to have these very Jayhawks on the ropes when they hosted them at the Erwin Center on January 19th. Although it was clear that this young Texas team could compete with the best of the Big 12, it consistently fell short in crunch time. Two days after that valiant effort against Kansas, any optimism was tempered when sophomore forward Jonathan Holmes broke his hand against Oklahoma.

On Wednesday night, the Longhorns finally welcomed back both Holmes and Kabongo against Iowa State. But thanks to foul trouble, neither one of the returning stars were even on the court when the game was decided in a second overtime. Kabongo and Holmes combined to play only 53 minutes in a game that was 50 minutes long, as freshman big man Connor Lammert put forth the best effort of his young career. Most importantly, Sheldon McClellan finally stepped up and carried the Longhorns, scoring all 10 Texas points in the decisive overtime period.

While the odds are incredibly long for a Texas win at Allen Fieldhouse tonight, there is no reason to think that the Longhorns stand no chance. Kansas has looked incredibly vulnerable this season, while the Texas offense finally started clicking when it was at full strength on Wednesday night. The 1.097 points that the Horns scored per possession was their second-best offensive performance of the season, and the fifth-best showing by an Iowa State opponent this year. The Longhorns will still have to execute incredibly well to have a shot at an upset tonight, but fans now at least have a reason to hold on to some shreds of hope.

Meet the Jayhawks

For an in-depth look at the Kansas roster, check out LRT’s game preview from the first meeting between these two teams.

The first match-up

On January 19th, the Longhorns used stifling defense to keep Kansas in check during the first twenty minutes, limiting the Jayhawks to just 26 points on 28% shooting. Ben McLemore took just three shots in the first half, perhaps still struggling with the lingering effects of an ankle sprain suffered five days prior against Baylor.

The Longhorns made no effort to crash the offensive glass, but still managed to own the rebounding advantage heading to the locker room. That edge on the boards was especially surprising after Holmes picked up two fouls in the first 56 seconds of the game and spent the remainder of the half on the bench.

Ben McLemore and Kansas stormed back against Texas
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

In the second half, Holmes made an immediate impact. He scored seven quick points that fueled a 14-4 run for Texas to open the frame, as the Longhorns took full advantage of miscues by the Jayhawks. Kansas turned it over six times in the first five minutes, after having coughed it up only four times in the entire first half.

Texas built a lead as large as 11 points in the second half, and still led by 10 with just over 11 minutes to play. But with Kansas taking better care of the basketball, the Longhorns once again found it difficult to score in a half-court game. McClellan became the only Horn who could put the ball in the basket, scoring all six of Texas’ points in a painful stretch of nearly eight minutes of offensive stagnation.

With Kansas switching to a four-guard look in the final six minutes, Naadir Tharpe took over ballhandling duties and freed up Elijah Johnson to play in his more natural role as a two-guard. The Jayhawks erased Texas’ six-point lead, holding the Horns to only two more baskets as Kansas poured on the points in crunch time. KU outscored Texas 17-4 down the stretch, moving to 4-0 in the Big 12 with a gutsy road win.

Since then…

Even with the offensive problems and the close calls against both Iowa State and Texas, Kansas maintained its steady march through the conference. Two days later, the Jayhawks went into Bramlage Coliseum and continued their dominance over in-state rival K-State. A comfortable home win over Oklahoma preceded a road win against West Virginia, where the Jayhawks again struggled to hang on to the ball and let the Mountaineers claw back late in the game. Still, Kansas was sitting at 7-0 in the league and seemed to be on its way to a ninth-straight Big 12 title.

But that’s when things started to unravel for the Jayhawks. The issues that had concerned Coach Self and the Kansas fanbase finally became big enough to result in losses. Early turnovers allowed Oklahoma State to build a big lead at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Cowboys ultimately snapped KU’s 33-game home win streak. Four days later, the Kansas offense was absolutely horrid in a loss at TCU, which was 0-8 in league play at the time.

After that improbable upset, the Jayhawks were facing the possibility of their first three-game losing streak since February of 2005. After a road loss against a resurgent Oklahoma squad, that fear came to fruition for Jayhawk Nation, knocking KU out of first place and putting them a game behind hated K-State.

Monday night, the Jayhawks once again returned to top form, looking dominant from start to finish against the Wildcats. Kansas cruised to a 21-point win, pushing the team back into a three-way tie for the league lead with seven games to play.

The biggest storyline to emerge from the three-game losing streak is the controversy over the point guard role. Johnson has made questionable decisions and been responsible for some frustrating turnovers, while his shooting percentage has taken a nose dive. To add fuel to the fire, Tharpe has stepped up and shown himself to be a quality facilitator when he’s put in at the point.

Naadir Tharpe has come on strong in Big 12 play
(Photo credit: Sharon Ellman/Associated Press)

In conference play, EJ has posted a turnover percentage north of 35% in six different games. His assist-to-turnover ratio has been above 1.0 in only four of the team’s 11 conference games. Meanwhile, Tharpe has put his teammates in a position to score and even took on the daunting task of guarding Rodney McGruder in Monday’s win over K-State. Tharpe had an assist rate of 50.3% in that win against KSU, and posted 43.4% and 45% in the home win over OU and the loss to Oklahoma State.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Tharpe makes things click when he is on the court, so Self and the Jayhawks now have to decide just how many minutes the sophomore guard will get. Someone has to sit on the bench to make room for the point guard, and it’s not an easy decision. The solution late in the game against Texas was to run with four guards. Unfortunately, that made Kevin Young the odd man out, with Jeff Withey obviously cemented into his role in the middle. Young provides an excellent spark for KU and is a constant hustle guy. Meanwhile, Johnson is much more comfortable when he slides off to shooting guard. If the Jayhawks are still going to make a run to Atlanta, Coach Self has to find the right lineup combination that can utilize Tharpe’s talents and still optimize the minutes he gives Johnson and Young.

Keys to the game

1) Limit transition points – In the first meeting between these two teams, the Longhorns were clearly concerned with Kansas’ ability to put up points on the run, as they completely abandoned the offensive glass in an effort to get back on D. That concern is sure to be an even bigger point of emphasis at Allen Fieldhouse, where the nation’s best home-court advantage is on display any time the Jayhawks score on the break. Visiting coaches always have to burn timeouts to kill the momentum when the KU transition game starts cranking up, so the Longhorns have to be wary of that constant threat in tonight’s game.

Still, completely conceding offensive rebounds isn’t necessarily the only approach. Oklahoma State found a lot of success on the offensive glass against KU, with many of their boards coming from 6’4″ guard Marcus Smart. If the Longhorns focus on their weak-side rebounding opportunities, it’s still possible to earn some second chance points while still having three or four players ready to stop the transition attack.

2) Push the tempo wisely – Texas was able to play at a faster pace with Kabongo at the helm on Wednesday, but the Horns must be careful with their tempo tonight. The Longhorns need to look for opportunities to push the tempo when the defense isn’t ready to stop the break, but they shouldn’t be trying to slam on the accelerator all night long.

A slower pace helps to keep the Allen Fieldhouse crowd out of the game, and it limits Kansas’ ability to put together quick scoring runs. Still, scoring in the halfcourt against the Jayhawks and their block-machine of a center is very difficult. If and when Texas can score easy points and avoid the half-court grind, it has to take advantage. The young Horns just have to be careful not to get caught up in the moment and play right into the hands of the Jayhawks.

3) Knock down perimeter looks – This key is much easier said than done for a Texas team that is dead last in the Big 12 when it comes to long-range shooting. The Horns have made only 26.2% of their threes in conference games, including an ugly 28% success rate against Iowa State on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, Kansas has the strongest interior defense in the country, limiting opponents to 38.5% shooting inside the arc. If Texas is to have any hope for a monumental upset tonight, the team will have to knock down some triples.

There is some reason for optimism, however. After shooting 28.5% from the field in the three games prior to Wednesday, Julien Lewis was much more selective against the Cyclones. He took and missed only one shot in regulation before hitting two huge three-pointers in overtime. Point guard Javan Felix showed off a great spot-up jumper from the perimeter, something fans never saw when he was on the ball for the first 23 games of the season. Add in Ioannis Papapetrou and his 38.6% mark from long range, and there’s reason to believe the Longhorns could knock down some triples. If they do, the Horns could hang with the Jayhawks until crunch time. If not, they will likely find it hard to score inside and could be in a deep hole very quickly.

1.19.13
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:18AM

#4/4 Kansas Jayhawks (15-1 overall, 3-0 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (8-8, 0-3)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 1 P.M. CT | TV: CBS
LRT Consecutive Game #237

The last time the Texas Longhorns started conference play with an 0-4 mark, the team missed the NCAA tournament and Coach Tom Penders lost his job. It has been more than 14 years since that disastrous season, and the Longhorns have appeared in every NCAA tournament since then under Coach Rick Barnes. With this year’s squad sitting at 0-3 in the Big 12 and an incredibly talented Kansas team coming to the Erwin Center this afternoon, the chances are good that the Horns will be matching that disappointing start.

Although the Longhorns suffered a pair of their conference losses in overtime, they have yet to face a team as skilled as Kansas. The Jayhaws have won 14 straight games after losing to Michigan State in the Champions Classic, with their 12 non-conference wins coming by an average of more than 20 points.

While the number alone is impressive, considering the strength of KU’s non-conference schedule only makes it more extraordinary. Although the non-con slate included the likes of Southeast Missouri State, American, and Chattanooga, Kansas also knocked off good mid-majors in Belmont and Richmond, blew out Colorado, and defeated Ohio State on the road.

Jeff Withey anchors KU’s imposing interior defense
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

By the numbers

As is to be expected with a Bill Self team, the Jayhawks are stout on both ends of the court. Their adjusted offensive efficiency is ranked 17th in the country by Ken Pomeroy, as the Jayhawks score 1.136 points per possession against the average defense. They are also fourth-best when it comes to stopping opponents, allowing an adjusted 0.838 points per possession.

There has been a slight drop-off for the Jayhawks on the offensive end in conference play, with the team scoring 1.047 points per possession. Their stifling defense has more than made up for slight dip in production, as the Jayhawks are limiting Big 12 foes to 0.85 points per possession, and held Baylor to 23.2% shooting from the field on Monday night.

Kansas’ interior defense is the toughest in the nation, as opponents make just 36% of their shots inside the arc. The team also has the second-best block rate in the country, swatting nearly 22% of the two-point attempts taken by their opponents. The dominant Big Monday win over Baylor drilled this point home, as the very tall Baylor lineup shot just 21.4% inside the arc and struggled to score the entire night.

Offensively, the Jayhawks have gradually become one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams despite a slow start behind the arc. Kansas has made 36.8% of its threes this season, ranking the team 50th out of 347 in Division I. In the Jayhawks’ first six games, they hit just 29.6% of their three-pointers, even with an impressive 7-for-13 performance behind the arc against Saint Louis. Although the team has seen its average dip once again in conference play, its scorching-hot 47.8% mark in December has shown just how quickly Kansas can light it up from outside.

Meet the Jayhawks

The team’s leading scorer is freshman Ben McLemore (No. 23), who is far more experienced than most first-year players. He was deemed a partial qualifier last season and had to get his grades in order before he could even practice with the team. Naturally, Kansas used McLemore’s redshirt and kept him out of game action in the spring semester. That gave him a chance to practice with and against last year’s Final Four team, easing his adjustment to the college game.

Ben McLemore is one of the nation’s best freshmen
(Photo credit: Stephen Spillman/Associated Press)

McLemore is a smooth scorer with an excellent jump shot that has been compared to that of Ray Allen. He elevates well above the defense and has perfect form, even when coming off a curl or taking a quick shot after the kickout. Although McLemore’s handles are not good enough to put him in a facilitating role, he can still drive from the perimeter and get to the rim. He has also shown some incredible athleticism on highlight reel dunks this season, so the Horns will have to put a body on him in offensive rebounding situations, unless they want to show up in a supporting role on Sportscenter.

The other player getting all of the press this year is senior Jeff Withey (No. 5), who is definitely worthy of all the attention. At 7-feet, he is the nation’s second-best shot blocker, swatting more than 17% of his opportunities. What makes him such an excellent defender, though, is that he does it all without fouling. Withey stays vertical and jumps straight to the ceiling, seriously altering any shots that he cannot block. His sound defensive fundamentals mean that he has been whistled for only 20 fouls in 16 games.

The other thing that Withey does remarkably well on the defensive end is keep his blocked shots in play. The Jayhawks are not a team that force an excessive number of turnovers, but they still have a very efficient transition game. A large part of that success is due to Withey’s ability to block shots inbounds, in addition to his willingness to immediately look up after securing defensive boards.

On the offensive end, Withey is a great passer in the post, allowing Self to use him in the high-low game. It also leads to easy buckets when Withey passes from block to block when opposing bigs help across the lane. The Jayhawks also love to use their big man in the pick and roll, setting him up for elementary finishes at the rim when defenders key on the Jayhawk drivers.

One of those drivers is Elijah Johnson (No. 15), who is the team’s point guard in title. Coach Self has pointed out that his team’s offense doesn’t have a true point after the first pass is made in the half court set, and Johnson’s game bears that out. EJ is a skilled slasher with slippery moves, but is also a great catch-and-shoot guy who will can it from outside on the drive-and-kick or quick ball reversals. He has also shown an affinity for the skip pass, frequently using it to set up McLemore in the far corner for threes.

The other guard in the starting five is senior Travis Releford (No. 24). Although he has been known throughout his career as a lockdown perimeter defender, Releford has upped his offensive game this season. He has hit more than 62% of his shots this year, and his true shooting percentage of 73.9% is best in the nation. Releford has made almost 42% of his threes, developed a midrange game, and consistently gets out and runs the floor well in transition to earn easy hoops.

At the four spot is Kevin Young (No. 40), the fourth senior in the team’s starting five. At 6’8″ and just 190 pounds, Young lacks the size of most four-men, but still manages to scrap on the glass. He is ranked in the top 100 for both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, with his 14% mark on the offensive glass slotting him 54th in the nation.

Young’s other major impact is as a great interior passer. He has a nice, soft touch on his passes from the high post and knows where and when to hit Withey with the feed. Opponents such as Texas Tech have tried to force Young to beat them as they double down on Withey, with varying degrees of success. He doesn’t possess a consistent midrange shot, but will put the ball on the floor to drive from the free-throw line when opponents play off of him.

The one area of weakness for this Kansas team is its depth. The starting five account for 74.1% of the team’s minutes, a stat that is skewed by the blowouts in non-con play. In the team’s five games that were decided by ten points or less, the bench accounted for just 19.7% of Kansas’ minutes.

The reserve who has earned the most minutes this year is sophomore Naadir Tharpe (No. 1), who has logged about 18 minutes per game backing up Johnson at the point. Only 5’11”, Tharpe is very quick with the ball and pressures opponents well on the perimeter. His shot has been streaky this season, but it appears he is hitting his stride after a slow start. Tharpe made just six of his first 21 from behind the arc, but has upped his three-point percentage to 37.2% coming into this game.

Perry Ellis is a promising freshman for Kansas
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Highly-touted recruit Perry Ellis (No. 34) has also seen action in every game, logging more than 14 minutes each night. At times, it has looked like Ellis lacks confidence, playing tentatively despite his natural skills. Like Withey, he knows how to hold his ground and play vertically on defense, and he works hard on the glass. With time, he should iron out the wrinkles in his offensive game and play with confidence on that end of the floor.

Like McLemore, Jamari Traylor (No. 31) was deemed a partial qualifier last season and used his redshirt. He is a high-motor guy who has thrown down some ferocious follow dunks in transition, and he is constantly working on the glass. Although he sees the court for just under 12 minutes per game, he looks like one of those prototypical Self players who has a small role as a freshman and then explodes as a sophomore or junior.

The Jayhawks also give minutes to freshmen Andrew White III (No. 3) and Rio Adams (No. 2), but usually when the game is out of reach. White is a 6’6″ swingman with a deadly three-point shot, while Adams is an exciting, athletic 6’3″ guard who often plays out of control. If Texas fans see either of these players for extended minutes this afternoon, it means that things have turned very ugly for the Longhorns.

Keys to the game

1) Handle the perimeter pressure – The Jayhawks do not force their opponents into many mistakes, but they do make it a point to force opposing guards out of their comfort zone. Kansas’ defensive turnover percentage of 19.3% is actually ranked 233rd in D-I, but they will pressure the ball well past the perimeter and hedge hard on ball screens.

The Texas offense has struggled throughout the season, but has had an especially difficult time when Javan Felix is unable to get free on high ball screens. The Longhorns also have made their most frustrating turnovers when passing it around the perimeter. Texas cannot afford to give up easy hoops with dumb turnovers behind the arc, and the team has to be able to find some offensive flow despite Kansas’ perimeter pressure.

2) Avoid taking challenged shots – The Longhorns will have a very tough time scoring at the rim in today’s game, as Withey’s presence typically cleans up any dribble penetration that opponents can muster. If Texas is going to score inside, it will have to come off of smart passing as Kansas rotates. If they cannot manage to do that, the Horns must avoid wasting possessions by forcing up bad looks against strong interior defense.

Although teams can score inside against KU with crisp passing and a little bit of basketball IQ, the most likely scenario is that Texas will have to knock down their jumpers to pull off a huge upset this afternoon. For a team that has an effective field goal mark of just 30.2%, that will be a very tall order.

3) Limit second chance points – Texas has been giving up offensive rebounds at the worst times this season, allowing both UCLA and West Virginia to win key boards in the final minutes. The Bruins and Mountaineers both took advantage of those extra opportunities to mount furious late-game comebacks and snatch victory away from Texas.

Although Kansas is ranked just above the national average when it comes to offensive rebounding, the Longhorns have to crash the defensive glass on every single possession. The Kansas offense is an efficient machine, and Texas cannot afford to waste their defensive stops by giving the Jayhawks extra chances to score.

3.03.12
Posted by Ryan Clark at 5:02PM

Texas Longhorns (19-11 overall, 9-8 Big 12) at #4/3 Kansas Jayhawks (25-5, 15-2)
Allen Fieldhouse | Lawrence, KS | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #217

In a busy Saturday packed full of games with huge NCAA implications, the Texas Longhorns tackle their toughest test of the season. Situated squarely on the bubble, the young Horns will be facing a top-five Kansas team on Senior Night, in front of a crowd thirsty for revenge after Texas snapped their 69-game home winning streak last January. If those subplots weren’t enough to create an electric atmosphere in Lawrence tonight, the Jayhawks are also still playing for the right to be bracketed into the geographically-favorable St. Louis regional of the NCAA tournament.

For the Longhorns, the one positive is that there is practically no one outside of the team and staff that is giving them much of a chance to win tonight. With other bubble teams dropping games this afternoon against much weaker competition than Kansas, a loss tonight would not be crippling for Texas. On the other hand, a victory that shocks the nation would almost certainly punch a ticket to the NCAAs for the Horns.

Meet the Jayhawks

For an in-depth look at the Kansas roster and style of play, check out LRT’s preview from the first game between these two teams.

J’Covan Brown couldn’t get going against KU
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

The first meeting

The Longhorns fell behind early when they hosted Kansas on January 21st, managing just nine points in the game’s first 12 minutes. The Jayhawks carried a 12-point lead to the locker room, powered by Tyshawn Taylor’s 12-point, four-assist first half. On the other side of the ball, J’Covan Brown struggled for Texas, going just 1-for-8 from the field in the first half.

After the break, Kansas built their lead back out to 15 points on a pair of free throws and a three-pointer from Taylor, but the Longhorn defense dug in their heels after that. Texas held Kansas to just 33% shooting from the field in the second half and slowly chipped away at the lead, finally taking an advantage of their own when Clint Chapman sank two free throws with 5:39 to play.

The Longhorns extended the lead to four points on a Brown triple with 3:21 to go, but they could not manage another basket the rest of the way. Kansas, meanwhile, executed down the stretch, going ahead for good on a Jeff Withey three-point play with 37 seconds left. Brown had two chances to tie the game in the final minute, missing a leaner with 15 seconds left and a three-pointer with less than two seconds to go.

Kansas escaped Austin with a 69-66 win and moved to 7-0 in conference play, while the Longhorns missed one of many opportunities to log a signature victory.

Since then…

The Jayhawks have been practically unstoppable en route to their eighth-consecutive Big 12 crown, falling only in road games at Iowa State and Missouri. Junior big man Jeff Withey has been a big part of that success, as his offensive game has developed nicely in Big 12 play. Already known for his shot-blocking abilities, Withey has upped his scoring average to 11.4 points over his last 14 games. If not for two terrible performances against Missouri — he scored a combined two points and grabbed just five boards versus the Tigers — those numbers would be even more impressive.

Last weekend, Kansas was down 19 points at home to Missouri in what might have been the final installment of the Border War. In front of a frenzied home crowd, the Jayhawks stormed back to force overtime and knock off their hated rivals, locking up another league title as Thomas Robinson made a strong case for national Player of the Year honors. T-Rob posted a mammoth 28-point, 12-rebound line, while Taylor scored 24 points, including four big triples.

While the top two seeds in the Big 12 Championship have already been decided, Mizzou and Kansas are still battling for the right to play their second weekend of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis. Thanks to the pod system, both teams will get to play close to home in Omaha for the 2nd and 3rd rounds, but only one can land the coveted St. Louis regional. A potential rubber match between the two rivals in the conference tournament could be the deciding factor.

Tyshawn Taylor sliced up the Texas D in Austin
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Keys to the game

1) Weather the storm – The Longhorns have dug themselves some big holes this season, and almost always rally back to make things interesting. In an environment like Allen Fieldhouse, that could be very difficult, especially for a young team like Texas. The closest thing to the Phog that these six freshmen have seen was the Dean Dome, and things got out of hand quickly in that blowout loss to UNC. If Texas wants to have any chance at an upset, they’ll have to avoid getting punched in the nose in the game’s opening minutes.

2) Draw fouls – The only weakness for Bill Self and the Jayhawks is a rather thin bench. If Texas can somehow get Taylor, Withey, or Robinson in foul trouble, there’s not anyone comparable on the Jayhawk bench that can fill those shoes. If Texas can get some of the key Kansas players on the bench while also manufacturing some points at the line, perhaps the Horns can stay within striking distance for crunch time.

3) Slow down Tyshawn Taylor – The mercurial junior has shown that he can be rattled and will often make questionable decisions in high-pressure situations. Unfortunately, he’s rarely shown those tendencies against the Longhorns. When Texas won in Allen Fieldhouse last January, the Horns were able to limit Taylor to just four points, but didn’t force him into any turnovers. In the two Kansas victories since then, Tyshawn has averaged 21 points, shot 60.9% from the field — including 62.5% behind the arc — and posted nine boards and nine assists. If the Longhorns fail to contain him again tonight, it will be nearly impossible to pull off the improbable road upset.

1.21.12
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:05AM

#7/7 Kansas Jayhawks (15-3 overall, 5-0 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (12-6, 2-3)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: CBS
LRT Consecutive Game #205

The Longhorns return to the Erwin Center after a difficult two-game road trip, but simply returning to a friendly arena won’t make things any easier. This afternoon, Texas has the unenviable task of squaring off with the league-leading Kansas Jayhawks, who arrive in Austin on five days’ rest and riding high after an authoritative win over previously-undefeated Baylor.

We’ve made much of the tough six-game stretch that Texas is currently in the midst of, but this afternoon marks the first of three home games out of the team’s next four contests. While knocking off Kansas, Iowa State, or Missouri won’t be easy — even at home — if the Longhorns are to add to their weak NCAA résumé, the Erwin Center is the most likely place to do it.

Bill Self has silenced the doubters this year
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

The Jayhawks have won all three of their true road games so far this season, but all three wins came against rather weak competition. Southern Cal, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech have an average KenPom rank of 154 in D-I hoops, while the Longhorns currently check in at 25th in Pomeroy’s rankings. Kansas has knocked off big-name teams already this year in the likes of Georgetown, Ohio State, and Baylor, but none came in a true road environment.

By the numbers

For the last seven seasons, the Jayhawks have either won or shared the league’s regular season title, and have added five conference tournament championships during that same stretch. Many observers, myself included, thought that this year would be the season Kansas was finally knocked off of its throne atop the Big 12. Kansas lost four of five starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, but Bill Self has done a phenomenal coaching job to keep his team among the nation’s elite.

Kansas is one of just three teams to have both their adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies ranked in the top ten of Ken Pomeroy’s metrics. That unstoppable offense and suffocating defense add up to a scoring differential of +0.331 point per possession. Even in their first five conference games, which included contests against Baylor and Kansas State, the Jayhawks still have an impressive differential of +0.274.

Kansas has a Player of the Year candidate in Thomas Robinson down low, and his imposing presence is a big reason why the Jayhawks have one of the nation’s five best marks in two-point field-goal defense. On offense, his dominance also has helped Kansas post a 54.4% shooting percentage inside the arc, and allowed the Jayhawks to reclaim 37.1% of their missed shots. When a team shoots as well as Kansas does and gets a lot of second and third chances, it is very difficult to get a stop.

That rebounding advantage extends to the the other end of the court, as well, where the Jayhawks check in just outside the top 20 in defensive rebounding percentage. KU opponents snag just 27.5% of their offensive rebounding opportunities, making it very important for teams to be shooting well if they want to beat the ‘Hawks. Texas has actually done a very good job on the offensive glass so far this year, with a 39.7% mark that is 11th-best in the nation. If the Longhorns want to pull off the upset, they will have to continue to crash the glass and extend possessions against a tough Kansas D.

Meet the Jayhawks

When you introduce a guy as a contender for national Player of the Year, it goes without saying that he’s the star of his team. Already a dominant player as a sixth man last year, Thomas Robinson (No. 0) has taken over the role vacated by the Morris twins and has put up eye-popping numbers all season long.

T-Rob has logged thirteen double-doubles on the year, and actually averages one as well, scoring 17.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. Lest you think those numbers were built against creampuff opponents, it should be pointed out that his stats are even better against Big 12 foes. In five conference games, Robinson is averaging 18 points and 12.6 boards.

Robinson is nearly unstoppable on the glass, and has both a solid face-up game and quality post moves, making him a tough match-up for centers and and forwards of all types. The junior also can handle the ball pretty well, giving Kansas an additional player who can push the tempo and try to establish the break after turnovers and missed shots.

Tyshawn Taylor has been tough to stop this season
(Photo credit: Stephen Spillman/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal)

The only returning starter from last year’s team is senior Tyshawn Taylor (No. 10), who has had an up-and-down career in Lawrence. After a win over Kansas State, Coach Self said of his point guard, “He makes plays you can’t coach. And then he makes plays where it looks like he’s never been coached.”

That polarity has extended beyond the court, where Taylor has fought members of the football team, said he wanted to transfer on Facebook, and called out his critics on Twitter. Add all of those issues to the fact that sometimes Tyshawn struggles with turnovers, and there are times where the ever-obsessive Jayhawk Nation has been quite critical of their senior leader.

Last season, Taylor put up double-digit scoring lines in sixteen games, including a masterful 20-point, five-assist effort that powered Kansas to revenge and a Big 12 tournament title against Texas. This year, he’s turned those flashes of brilliance into a consistent scoring threat, chipping in 16.2 points per game. Taylor can slice through the defense with the dribble, drills nearly 45% of his long-range attempts, and always seems to come up with big buckets in the clutch.

Joining Taylor in the backcourt is Elijah Johnson (No. 15), who is also an adept ballhandler that can handle point duties. A highly-regarded recruit out of Las Vegas, Johnson struggled to find consistent playing time on an incredibly-loaded Kansas roster during his first two seasons. Now an everyday starter, he’s averaging nearly 10 points a game and provides excellent perimeter defense. While Johnson has only made 30% of his threes, he can heat up in a hurry, as evidenced by his 4-of-8 and 5-of-7 performances from long range against UCLA and Ohio State.

The third guard for Coach Self is Travis Releford (No. 24) a redshirt junior who is yet another slashing threat in the backcourt. At 6’5″, he’s also a quality rebounder at the guard position, snagging more than four boards per game to go with his 10 points. Like Johnson, Releford also plays solid defense on the perimeter, using his height and length to frustrate other guards and post a steal percentage of 2.7%.

In the middle, 7-footer Jeff Withey (No. 5) is the epitome of a role player. Playing only about 22 minutes per game, he still leads the Big 12 with more than three blocks per game and is a big part of Kansas’ dominance in the paint. Even when he’s not blocking shots, his simple presence in the lane can affect opposing offenses, and his 12.2% offensive rebounding percentage is tops on the team. One struggle for Withey this season has been foul trouble, but thanks to his limited minutes, he rarely actually fouls out of the game.

The sixth man for Kansas is Connor Teahan (No. 2), who makes a living on the perimeter. Although he is not the team’s best three-point shooter, he still takes 80% of his shots from behind the arc, and has knocked down 37.5% of them so far this year. Texas has to stay close to the senior guard and make him drive the basketball. Unfortunately, the Jayhawks are great at moving the ball quickly and crisply, so sticking in Teahan’s shirt will be a difficult task.

Kansas also uses a trio of reserves sparingly, getting a combined 26 minutes out of Kevin Young (No. 40), Justin Wesley (No. 4), and Naadir Tharpe (No. 1) in conference play. Young is an athletic forward who has rebounded very well after transferring from Loyola Marymount. Wesley is also a transfer forward, coming to Lawrence by way of Lamar. The younger brother of former Jayhawk Keith Langford, he’s a stout 6’8″, 220 pounds and excels at shot blocking. Tharpe will be the point guard of the future for KU and is extremely quick with the ball. For now, he is simply used to spell Taylor and Johnson for a few minutes each game.

Keys to the game

Texas needs to keep Thomas Robinson on the sideline
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

1) Attack Robinson – There isn’t as much depth on this Jayhawk roster as in years past, and there’s certainly nobody on the bench who can match the skill level of Thomas Robinson. Texas benefited from getting K-State’s Jamar Samuels in foul trouble on Wednesday night, and they would see huge returns from doing the same against T-Rob this afternoon. The caveat here is that Myck Kabongo and J’Covan Brown must be smart about this approach, as both Robinson and Withey can easily block ill-advised shots.

2) Rattle Taylor – While Tyshawn has been a scoring machine as of late, he still has issues controlling the ball. When he is clicking and can dissect a defense, Kansas is practically unstoppable. The Longhorns must force Taylor into mistakes and keep him from feeling comfortable. If not, he and Robinson will likely put up video game numbers en route to an impressive road win.

3) Make it count behind the arc – Texas isn’t one of the best in the country when it comes to three-pointers, but against a stout interior D from Kansas, the Horns will have to knock down some outside shots. The Longhorns were a hot 9-of-16 from long range against Missouri last Saturday, but followed that up with an inefficient 7-of-22 against K-State on Wednesday. Brown was a big part of those long-range struggles against the Wildcats, so he and the Longhorns not only need to knock down their threes, but also make sure that they aren’t forcing up bad looks.

4) Build momentum early – The Frank Erwin Center has been more like a library the last two seasons, but the building has certainly been home to some electric atmospheres in the past, particularly when Kansas was in the house. Texas fans are the type to only cheer when given a reason to do so, which means the Horns need to come out hot if they want to get the full advantage of home court. Fall behind early — which is always a big danger against Kansas — and the apathetic Texas fanbase will likely start chatting about football recruiting news.

3.12.11
Posted by Ryan Clark at 1:48PM

[2] Texas Longhorns (27-6) vs. [1] Kansas Jayhawks (31-2)
Sprint Center | Kansas City, MO | Tip: 5 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #184

Before the newspaper ink was even dry on January 23rd, people were already taking about March 12th. Jayhawk fans, still stinging from a shocking home loss to Texas the night before, were eager for a rematch in the conference tournament.

That rematch seemed all but destined, as the teams continued their march through conference play, with the Longhorns sprinting out to an 11-0 start and the Jayhawks staying just a game behind them. Texas stumbled on the road in the final weeks of the season, opening the door for Kansas to claim a seventh-straight league title and raising questions about the Longhorns’ moxie.

Texas hopes to hook its first Big 12 tourney title
(Photo credit: Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star)

A win in Waco to close out the regular season was a step in the right direction for Texas, and they built upon that with solid tournament victories over Oklahoma and A&M to set up the long-awaited championship re-match. Beating the Bears, Sooners, and Aggies definitely bolsters fan confidence, but this game with Kansas gives Texas a chance to prove that their earlier win was no fluke, and that this year’s team won’t be collapsing in March.

Then there’s the big picture. When the weekend started, Texas was fourth in line for the final two 1-seeds in the NCAA tournament. Pitt, Notre Dame, and Duke all had stronger résumés, and adding to those with victories in the conference tournament would only solidify their elite status. Longhorn wins over the mediocre middle of the league wouldn’t do much to help their profile, so a 2-seed was practically assured.

Then the Big East Tournament mixed things up. Pitt lost in its first game, falling victim to Kemba Walker and his heroics. Notre Dame looked impressive in thumping Cincinnati, but stumbled in overtime against Louisville last night. Throw in the toe troubles for Duke’s Nolan Smith, and suddenly Texas is back in the conversation.

Of course, that all becomes irrelevant if the Longhorns can’t top the Jayhawks for a second time.

Meet the Jayhawks

If you aren’t already familiar with the Kansas roster or style of play, we invite you to re-visit our in-depth game preview from the first meeting in Lawrence.

The first meeting

Kansas jumped out to an early lead in Lawrence, riding the hot hand of Tyrel Reed to a 12-2 lead at the first media timeout. The Longhorns had not even scored their first bucket until three minutes had elapsed, and it looked like another KU rout was in progress.

The Longhorn defense quickly stiffened, though, limiting dribble penetration from the Jayhawk guards and turning them into a one-dimensional team. Kansas settled for a simple high-low game with Thomas Robinson and Marcus and Markieff Morris constantly being fed inside. The three big men combined for 28 points, but did it at inefficient rate. Marcus was 6-of-17 from the field, while Markieff managed to sink just two of seven attempts.

J’Covan Brown sparked Texas to their win in Lawrence
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

Texas was able to keep the Jayhawks within striking distance, heading to the locker room trailing by just 12 points. Coach Rick Barnes then broke out his magic sharpshooter sauce, and gave a healthy dose to the entire team. The Longhorns shot an incredible 63.6% from the field in the second half — including 4-of-6 from behind the arc — and dropped 51 more points on Kansas.

With J’Covan Brown playing like a man possessed and Cory Joseph banking in three-pointers, it seemed like there was no way to stop Texas. But in the face of those long odds, Kansas displayed the poise of a champion down the stretch. Trailing by 12 with 3:45 to play, the Jayhawks sliced the lead to five with just over 90 seconds to go. Responding to the challenge, Gary Johnson drilled a clutch jumper from the baseline on the next possession to stop the rally and clinch the win for Texas.

Since then…

The Jayhawks had a close call in their next game at Colorado, but looked practically unstoppable after that. Kansas won nine of their next ten games, all by double digits, with six of those wins coming by more than 20 points. If not for an uncharacteristically poor game in Manhattan, the Jayhawks would have finished the conference season on a 12-game winning streak.

In Kansas City, though, the Jayhawks have once again looked human. Poor shooting against a packed-in Oklahoma State defense nearly led to a quarterfinal exit for Kansas. Against Colorado in last night’s semifinal, poor perimeter defense let the Buffaloes hang around in a game they had no business competing in.

Just like Texas, the Jayhawks have had some bi-polar tendencies. And just like the Longhorns, Kansas has won based on pure talent in some of their poorer performances this season. If both teams show up tonight, we are in store for a highly entertaining championship game. But if either team lets their bad habits peek through the armor, you can be sure that their opponents will take full advantage.

Keys to the game

Unlike our typical game previews, there’s no way to limit ourselves to three keys for this one. Against a team as talented, deep, and disciplined as Kansas, the Longhorns have a lot of things to worry about if they expect to leave Missouri with the tournament title.

Texas will have its hands full with the Morris twins
(Photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Most importantly, Johnson and Thompson must avoid foul trouble. In their win over Colorado last night, Kansas immediately put the Buffalo big men in foul trouble, leading to a revolving door of ineffectiveness that let Markieff and Marcus combine for 40 points and 21 rebounds. Not only do the Longhorns need Gary and Tristan for their scoring punch, but also to contain the big, athletic Kansas frontcourt.

Unfortunately, the Jayhawks are a team that can score in a variety of ways, which is precisely what makes it so hard to beat them. They move the ball incredibly well, which often leads to open looks when opponents choose to double down on the Morris brothers in the post. Just like in Lawrence, Texas needs to play conservative defense and avoid the temptation to jump passing lanes or double down from the guard positions.

The Longhorns will also need Good Jordan and Good J’Covan to show up this evening. Both players poured on the points in the first game, combining for 40 points. Brown was 3-of-6 behind the arc and provided the spark for Texas’ second-half surge. Late in the season, both players struggled for the Longhorns, but have picked it up in the team’s first two tournament games. If they can avoid forcing things and continue to take smart shots, Texas has a chance to pull off the sweep.

In Lawrence, the Longhorns were able to limit the damage from the Brothers Morrii thanks to a solid effort from Hill. His lack of scoring was more than made up for by the fact that he used all five fouls, and most of his fouls were hard enough to avoid and-one situations. The Longhorns don’t need much from Hill and Alexis Wangmene, but they need adequate minutes from the post reserves. Avoiding defensive lapses against the Morris brothers and limiting turnovers on the offensive end are really the only things Texas needs from them.

Finally, Texas must fight through the crowd. The Sprint Center is essentially Allen Fieldhouse East, and today will be no exception. Although the roof isn’t touching the top row like at the Phog, there are 2,000 more seats in the Sprint Center, and 99% of them will be occupied by folks in blue and red.

While this Longhorn team seems to feed off of the energy of road crowds, there’s no doubt that Jayhawk Nation will be exceptionally loud as they look for revenge tonight. When Kansas makes their runs — and rest assured, they will have a few — Texas cannot let the energy in the building lead to more mistakes.

1.23.11
Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:47PM

#11/10 Texas Longhorns 74, #2/2 Kansas Jayhawks 63

Things were different in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon. There was no “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk.” There was no waving of the wheat. There was simply stunned silence and a mass exodus that began with more than a minute left on the clock. The air was filled with a mix of confusion, dejection, and disgust. One of the things taken for granted in the Midwest, a certainty on par with the sun rising each day, was suddenly turned on its head. Kansas had finally lost at home.

Bill Self and KU suffered their first home loss in four years
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

There is a banner that greets all opponents when they arrive to Allen Fieldhouse. “Take heed, all who enter,” it warns. “Beware the Phog.” It’s a place worthy of the cautionary signage. Texas’ 74-63 win was the first by a visiting opponent in the last 70 games, and just the second in the last 90 games.

Beyond the historical implications, the win was huge for the Longhorns because it left them as the sole undefeated team in Big 12 play. One quarter of the way through the league schedule, Texas is one game ahead in the loss column of both Texas A&M and Kansas, both teams that the Longhorns now hold the head-to-head advantage over. The Aggies and Longhorns will meet again in College Station a week from Monday.

In terms of NCAA seeding, the win also gave the Longhorns their third big road victory, and fourth win over a team ranked 25th or better by statistician Ken Pomeroy. The Bracket Project’s Bracket Matrix shows that of the seven bracket projections which have been updated since the win, four have the Longhorns moving onto the 2-seed line.

Inside the numbers

The initial moments of the game were soul-crushing for even the most optimistic of Longhorn fans. Kansas took a dominating lead early behind the hot shooting of three-point gunner Tyrel Reed, while the Longhorns couldn’t even sink a basket for more than three minutes. By the first media timeout, the Jayhawks were up 12-2, and even added a free throw coming out of the break.

Matt Hill had a big defensive game for Texas
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

But after the initial turbulence, the Longhorns settled in and imposed their will on the Jayhawks. The stout Texas defense deterred the Kansas guards from even attempting dribble penetration, and they settled for a simple high-low game with no wrinkles. Bring the ball down the court, dump it in to the post, hope that Robinson or a Morris twin could score. Rinse. Repeat.

Fortunately for Texas, Matt Hill had the best zero-point performance in Texas history. He grabbed four defensive rebounds and used every one of his five fouls, forcing the Kansas bigs to earn their points at the line. As it is for Texas, the charity stripe is more like a demented carnival funhouse for Kansas, and the Brothers Morrii combined to sink just 9 of 16 from the line.

The most telling statistic came in the form of efficiency numbers. Heading into the game, the Jayhawks were scoring an adjusted 1.182 points per possession. They were coming off of an absolute drubbing of Baylor, a road win in which they put on an offensive clinic and scored an insane 1.337 points each time down the floor. Against the Longhorns, the Jayhawks managed just 0.879 points per trip, a loss of more than 25% of their typical offensive production.

The story was the exact same on the other side of the basketball. Kansas was limiting opponents to just 0.829 points per possession heading into yesterday afternoon’s game. For the first five minutes, it looked like the Longhorns would suffer the same fate. As the Jayhawks built an early fifteen point lead, Texas managed just three points in ten possessions, due in large part to three turnovers and an inability to rebound their misses.

The Texas defense stifled Kansas down the stretch
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

That would be the end of Kansas’ dominance, however. Texas stayed within arm’s reach of the Jayhawks until halftime, and then dropped 51 second-half points on the home team, the most Kansas has allowed in a half since February 9th, 2008. Despite the inauspicious start, the Longhorns finished the game with 1.033 points per possession, nearly 25% more than what the Jayhawks had allowed their previous opponents. On both sides of the ball, the Longhorns dictated the flow of the game.

Grading the players

Following a win like this, it’s tough to hand out anything but positive marks to the entire team. Even Gary Johnson, who had one of the toughest shooting games of his career, managed to fight through the adversity and hit a pair of clutch baskets. While Gary allowed the Morrii to grab a few key rebounds down the stretch, his jumper from the corner iced the game with 1:05 to play, and it came after he had started the game just 1-of-7.

Feeding Gary on that jumper was Jordan Hamilton, who had the quietest 17-point performance in recent memory. He earned seven of his points at the line, but perhaps made the biggest impact by leading the team with nine rebounds. Following a technical foul called on him for taunting, Hamilton sat on the bench for nearly six minutes in the second half. It says a lot for this Texas team that with their star on the bench, they were still able to turn a seven-point deficit into a four-point lead.

J’Covan Brown was all smiles after scoring 23 points
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

Without Hamilton, the Horns were powered by J’Covan Brown and Tristan Thompson. Brown scored 11 of Texas’ 16 points in that stretch, and finished with 23 points for the game. Thompson had three points and two rebounds with Hamilton on the bench, and posted 12 and six for the game. Against the Kansas frontcourt, that’s a big accomplishment in its own right. What was an even bigger accomplishment for the freshman was his 6-of-8 performance at the free-throw line, a place where he had made just 49.2% of his attempts heading into the game.

Cory Joseph also played well after some initial jitters and an airball that drew a chant from the oversized Kansas student section. He finished with eleven points and made two three-pointers, including one that banked in off the glass as the shot clock expired. Just two weeks after Kemba Walker hit a miracle shot to beat the shot clock in Austin, it was as if the basketball gods just wanted to even things out for the Longhorns.

With Brown and Joseph playing well, that left Dogus Balbay on the bench for much of the team’s furious rally. In conference play, Dogus is averaging just 15.5 minutes, while Brown has seen his playing time increase to more than 24 minutes per game. This new approach seems to give Texas the perfect two-headed guard, as Balbay provides excellent defense — he helped hold KU star Josh Selby to just four points — while Brown brings in the offensive spark from the bench. If these two continue to play at this level down the stretch, the Horns will be tough to beat.

Next up: at Oklahoma State (14-5 overall, 2-3 Big 12); 6:30 P.M. CT, Wednesday

1.22.11
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:28AM

#11/10 Texas Longhorns (15-3 overall, 3-0 Big 12) at #2/2 Kansas Jayhawks (18-0, 3-0)
Phog Allen Fieldhouse | Lawrence, KS | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: CBS

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Allen Fieldhouse is a tough place for road teams to win. Just ask the last 69 teams that have come into the historic building, all of which left with a loss. The home-court advantage is so strong in Lawrence, in fact, that the second-longest active home winning streak in the country isn’t even half as long as the one the Jayhawks enjoy. The Duke Blue Devils — a dominant home team in their own right — have just a measly 30 consecutive wins at Cameron Indoor Arena.

It could go without saying, then, that the Longhorns enter today’s big game as underdogs. Texas is 0-9 all-time in Lawrence, a streak that dates back to 1941. Break that curse, however, and the Longhorns will be sitting atop the league standings as the lone undefeated squad left in the Big 12.

Teams have had a tough time against the Jayhawk D
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

The odds are long, but there is certainly a chance it could happen. Kansas has played a handful of close games this season, including three home contests that came down to the final minute. None of the visitors could overcome the Phog in the end, but UCLA, USC, and Nebraska all made valiant efforts. For such a talented, athletic team, the Jayhawks have seemed, at times, to have chinks in the armor.

By the numbers

The Jayhawks are so difficult to beat namely because they are incredibly efficient on both ends of the court. Their offense scores at a clip of 1.182 points per possession, which adds up quickly at Kansas’ brisk pace of 71.4 possessions per game.

Bill Self’s team is highly efficient with the basketball because they refuse to take bad shots. They are constantly pushing the ball in transition, resulting in a ton of easy fast break buckets or good looks on the secondary break. When the open shot isn’t there, the Jayhawks are disciplined enough to pull the ball out and set up the offense.

In the half-court, they move the basketball well, and are patient enough to wait for the right shot. That commitment to passing and good shot selction shows in the mountains of assists the Jayhawks pile up night after night. They have assists on more than 60% of their buckets, a number that ranks the team 34th in the country. If you could remove the team’s numerous fast-break layups that don’t require any passes, that percentage would climb even higher.

In terms of adjusted tempo-free numbers, Kansas has the best defense in the country. They allow opponents to score just 0.829 points per possession, a number built upon the stingiest perimeter defense in the nation. Kansas opponents are shooting just 25.6% from behind the arc.

The Jayhawks are also doing a great job forcing turnovers, causing miscues on 23.5% of opponents’ possessions. This will be an interesting stat to track this afternoon, as the Longhorns are one of the most disciplined teams in the country when it comes to controlling the basketball. Texas is coughing it up on just 17.1% of their possessions, good enough for 19th-best in the land.

The starting five

Marcus Morris is playing like an All-American
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Kansas is led by their twin brothers from Philadelphia, Marcus and Markieff Morris. Marcus is the leading scorer for the Jayhawks, putting in more than 17 points per night. As Luke Winn wrote in this week’s Power Rankings, Marcus is also the nation’s most efficient scorer in post-up situations. What makes things even more difficult for Jayhawk opponents is that the big man can also step out and knock down jumpers from just about anywhere on the floor.

Markieff, meanwhile, is much more of a low-post player. He’s certainly capable of scoring from outside — he’s shooting 33.3% from behind the arc — but he’s most useful to the Jayhawks when he’s positioned down low, cleaning up the glass. Markieff is averaging 8.7 boards per game, and his rebounding percentages are dominant on both ends of the court. On the offensive glass, he swipes 12.9% of the opportunities, good for 133rd in the nation. Defensively, he keeps opponents from getting second chances by grabbing 27.2% of the team’s rebounding opportunities. That impressive percentage is actually 14th-best in all of D-I basketball.

In addition to the Brothers Morris, the most well-known name on the Jayhawk roster is freshman superstar Josh Selby. After sitting out the first nine games of the year as a result of accepting impermissible benefits, Selby made an immediate impact in his debut game, sinking the game-winning three against USC on December 18th.

Since then, Selby has established himself as the team’s primary backcourt scoring threat, putting in more than 12 points a game. He’s absolutely deadly from long range, where he’s hit more than 42% of his attempts, and he simply knows how to create looks for himeself and his teammates. While he’s turned it over more times than he’s logged an assist so far this season, Selby’s ability to create with the basketball fits perfectly into KU’s crisp passing attack.

Joining Selby in the backcourt are senior Tyrel Reed and junior Tyshawn Taylor. While Reed is a spot-up shooter who has made 37.4% of his threes so far, Taylor is a slashing threat that can get to the rim in a moment’s notice. While Taylor is probably known more for his off-court incidents with Facebook and the school’s football team, his skills on the court are nothing to be ignored. His quick moves with the ball force defenses to help and rotate, and it leads to a ton of assists to wide-open teammates. Taylor’s length also makes him an excellent defender on the perimeter.

Off the bench

With Kansas running up and down the floor, the Jayhawks have to utilize a bench that is ten or eleven men deep on any given night. Fortunately for Coach Self, the first five guys on the Kansas bench could probably comprise a starting five at many other schools. As Luke Winn illustrated in his January 13th Power Rankings, the Jayhawk bench actually posts Player Efficiency Ratings that are higher than some of the team’s starters.

Thomas Robinson brings a ton of energy from the bench
(Photo credit: Ed Zurga/Associated Press)

Thomas Robinson is the big man of the future for Kansas, but he’s already doing a heck of a job as a sophomore. In just 15 minutes per game, he’s grabbing more than six boards. If he played enough minutes, Robinson’s 20.6% offensive rebounding percentage would actually be third in the nation.

While Coach Self has compared Robinson to Dennis Rodman thanks to his uncanny knack to grab boards, he’s also a high-motor guy who runs the floor well in transition and provides an imposing defensive presence inside. On a team that doesn’t block shots like the Cole Aldrich-led squads, Robinson’s 7% block rate is a huge boost.

Since arriving in Lawrence, juco transfer Mario Little has had a more convoluted storyline than a telenovela character. In his first season with Kansas, he missed much of the year with an injury, but chose to forgo a medical redshirt and rejoined the team in conference play. Last year, he did burn the redshirt thanks to Xavier Henry’s stranglehold on playing time, but then missed significant time this season after a December arrest for battery, criminal damage, and trespassing.

When Little is actually on the court, however, he provides a great mismatch for Coach Self and the Jayhawks. He can be used as an oversized guard or an undersized forward, and he excels in both roles. He can knock down the long-range and mid-range jumpers, and can scrap inside for points and boards against much bigger players.

Travis Releford is another tough match-up coming off the bench for the Jayhawks. At 6’5″, he’s taller than most guards, and it’s allowed him to can 46% of his threes so far this season. As pointed out in Winn’s column, Releford is incredibly efficient when he is on the court, and his 124.3 offensive rating puts him among the top 90 players in the country.

Also in the backcourt, senior Brady Morningstar will provide key minutes from the bench. He’s a lockdown defender who also provides a steady hand on the offensive end.

Sophomore Elijah Johnson is another guard option for Coach Self, and he’s even more reliable with the ball than Morningstar. Johnson, who was a five-star point guard prospect out of Las Vegas, has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.75-to-1.

Seven-footer Jeff Withey could also see a little action in this one, but is averaging just 7.5 minutes and 2.8 boards per game so far this season.

Keys to the game

The number one thing Texas must do this afternoon is stop the basketball. Kansas is always looking up the court after they force opponents into missed shots, so the Longhorns can’t let the Jayhawks rack up easy points on fast breaks and secondary breaks. It’s no secret that Texas has had some defensive lapses this season where no one stops the ball, and it resulted in far too many easy buckets. That simply cannot happen if the team has designs on a huge road upset this afternoon.

Texas also will need to dictate the tempo in this one. While the Longhorns have looked good when they are pushing the basketball, they don’t have the horses to compete in a sprinting match with Kansas. The Jayhawks run nine or ten deep on any given night, and the talent coming off their bench is significantly better than the reserves on Texas’ bench.

Texas will need another solid defensive effort today
(Photo credit: Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

It’s also worth nothing that stat guru Ken Pomeroy has calculated a correlation coefficient of -0.33 between tempo and Texas’ offensive efficiency. To put that in layman’s terms, it means that while the direct link between tempo and offensive efficiency isn’t incredibly strong, it does indicate that the Longhorns benefit slightly from slowing the game down. Combined with the depth issues we just touched upon, these numbers indicate that the Horns need to control the pace this afternoon.

Thanks to those depth issues, the Texas frontcourt must avoid foul trouble. While Alexis Wangmene had a quality game against A&M on Wednesday night, the Longhorns are going to need some serious minutes from Gary Johnson and Tristan Thompson this afternoon. If they pick up cheap ones early and force Wangmene or Matt Hill to have to defend the Morris twins for an extended period of time, things will likely not end well for Texas.

Finally, the Longhorn defense must stay home. The quick Kansas ball movement means that any overpursuit or unnecessary gambles will immediately result in open looks. The Jayhawks are very fond of a high-low game that sets up the Morris brothers on the blocks, but if Texas tries to front those passes, it opens up the easy lob. Try to jump passing lanes on the perimeter, and the Jayhawks will nail a wide-open three. If Texas plays sound, vanilla defense, they can limit the number of easy looks Kansas will find this afternoon.

2.08.10
Posted by Ryan Clark at 5:23PM

#1/1 Kansas Jayhawks (22-1 overall, 8-0 Big 12) at #14/14 Texas Longhorns (19-4, 5-3)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN

Just one month ago, fans of Texas and Kansas were eagerly looking forward to tonight’s match-up. Their teams were undefeated and ranked in the top two slots nationally. The winner of the sole match-up between the two schools would likely have the inside track to a Big 12 title and a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. Everything seemed to be aligning for an epic showdown.

Things certainly haven’t gone according to plan. First, Kansas stumbled with a road loss against a horribly depleted Tennessee team, propelling the Longhorns to their first-ever No. 1 ranking in school history. Texas was only able to hold on to that spot for one week before hitting a horrendous skid where they lost four out of six games.

Sherron Collins has blown by the competition all season
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star

After all those speedbumps, February 8th is finally here. But the day that was once circled on so many calendars is now just another Monday in conference play. The game has lost most of its luster, with Texas sliding down the polls and the bracket projections. The Jayhawks hold a commanding 2.5-game lead in the conference standings, and will likely cruise to yet another Big 12 title.

But for Texas, this game is huge. It’s not big because of seeding or even important for the conference standings. The Longhorns desperately need a win tonight to restore some confidence. It’s been crystal clear on the faces of the Texas players for the last few weeks — this team is looking for answers, and they are getting desperate that they have been unable to find them. What better way to re-instill some swagger than a gut-check win over the nation’s top team?

By the numbers

Unfortunately for the Longhorns, that will not be an easy task. The Jayhawks come into the game with the 2nd-most efficient offense and 4th-most efficient defense in the country. Kansas is just one of two teams that has efficiency rankings in the top ten on both sides of the ball, with the other being Syracuse. That all-around dominance gives the Jayhawks a differential of +0.361 points per possession. That may seem like a small number, but when you multiply it out by 60 or 70 possessions per game, you quickly realize just how good Bill Self‘s team has been.

The main reason KU is so efficient on offense is that they are loaded with talent from top to bottom. They can score in a variety of ways, and from anywhere on the floor. If you take away their inside game, they kill you from long range. Sell out to stop the perimeter attack, and you’re decimated by the frontcourt. The Jayhawks are hitting 41% of their threes on the year, and nearly 50% from the field. It’s certainly a matter of picking your poison when trying to defend Kansas.

When Texas has the ball, they are going to have to deal with a defense that simply does not allow teams to score inside. For the Longhorns, that can mean all sorts of trouble. It’s no secret that Texas has been absolutely stymied when opponents force them to settle for long-range jumpers, so Rick Barnes will have to find a way for his team to attack the stingy interior defense. Unfortunately, the ‘Hawks are 12th in the nation when it comes to blocks, typically because big man Cole Aldrich is often waiting as a secondary defender to swat away any ill-conceived shots.

Meet the Jayhawks

Cole Aldrich is nearly unstoppable inside
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star

Aldrich is not just a phenomenal shot blocker. He also is a beast on the boards, and is the perfect compliment down low for Kansas’ excellent outside shooting. Self often has Cole setting screens in the high post or on the perimeter, and his height makes it very easy for him to catch a pass on the pick-and-roll before flushing it home. The only real knock on Aldrich’s offensive game is that he has a bizarre shooting motion that makes it far too easy to defend him on pick-and-pop plays.

As we’ve already mentioned, Aldrich gets a ton of blocks when he rotates over on help defense. That leaves the Jayhawks susceptible to dribble penetration by guards who then dump it off to open players on the blocks. Last year in Lawrence, Texas rode this strategy to an early lead. If the Longhorns can actually capitalize on the easy one- and two-foot looks they have been missing in the last few weeks, that type of attack should keep them in the game tonight.

The other big-time star joining Aldrich in the starting five is All-American senior Sherron Collins. He’s an incredibly quick guard with really long range, so teams have to decide whether they prefer to give up the blow-by when they crowd him, or give him looks beyond the arc when they sag to prevent the drive. He’s the team’s leading scorer with more than 15 points per game, but he also is a good distributor, logging more than four assists each night. Quite a few of those assists come when he drives the lane and kicks it out past the collapsing D, resulting in a wide-open three from one of Kansas’ many long-range gunners.

Collins is also very strong for a guy his size, so he’s able to finish through contact at the rim. Texas really can’t afford to have their frontcourt in foul trouble tonight, so if they do have to burn some fouls when Collins is driving, they have to make sure he doesn’t finish for an and-one.

Brady Morningstar has once again cracked the starting lineup after missing the first month of the season due to a DUI arrest in October. He’s a lockdown defender that will give the Longhorn guards a headache all night. As if his defense wasn’t enough, Morningstar is a capable ballhandler that can allow Collins to work himself open off the ball, and he’s also a heck of a three-point shooter. He’s making nearly 45% of his attempts from long range, and will surely make some daggers against the Longhorns tonight.

Xavier Henry is an all-around star for KU
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star

Joining Collins and Morningstar in the backcourt is freshman phenom Xavier Henry. At 6’6″, Henry is anything but just a guard, and he will make plays all over the court tonight. He’s left-handed, which always seems to make players harder to defend, and he can shoot from anywhere. Give him space, and he’ll calmly knock down a three. Cut off his driving lane, and he’ll pull up to kiss it off the glass. Give him an uninterrupted path to the basket, and he’ll throw down a dunk that will show up on Sportscenter’s Top Ten after the game.

In addition, Henry’s tall frame allows him to get many more rebounds than your typical guard. And against a Texas team that often runs three-guard looks and sometimes uses Gary Johnson in the power forward role, Henry is likely going to have a good night on the glass. He’s averaging four boards a game from the swingman role, and there’s a very good chance he’ll exceed that tonight.

The only forward in the starting lineup for KU is Marcus Morris, one half of the twin duo from Philadelphia. Like brother Markieff Morris, Marcus added about twenty pounds in the offseason and his inside game has improved as a result. He’s finishing more baskets inside and is pulling down 6.3 boards per game, second only to Aldrich. He’s always had three-point range — although it’s been overshadowed on a team with shooters like Collins and Morningstar — but Marcus has also developed his midrange game this year. Now he has a nice baseline jumper to compliment his skill set, and it’s typically good out to fourteen feet.

Brother Markieff is coming off the bench for about fifteen minutes per game, but isn’t quite as polished as Marcus. He still has a tendency to pick up dumb, frustration fouls that limit his minutes, and his offensive skill set isn’t as refined as his brother’s. Markieff is averaging six points and five boards per game, so he should still make an impact in his time on the court tonight.

Guard Tyshawn Taylor has been relegated to the bench since Morningstar’s return to the starting lineup, and at one point he was apparently so frustrated that he voiced a desire to transfer on his Facebook. The post was immediately removed and Self was testy with reporters who brought it up, but questions still linger about the chemistry in the locker room between the guards.

When Taylor is on the floor, he’s a very quick guard who can speed past defenders off the dribble. The key is to give him enough space that he’s forced to beat you with a jump shot. Like Collins, Taylor is a combo guard who earns his fair share of assists (3.3 in 22 minutes per game), but is not as good of a jump shooter. He’s still serviceable in the midrange and behind the arc, but if the Longhorns can keep Taylor in front of them and put a little bit of pressure on him while shooting, it will certainly help their chances tonight.

Tyrel Reed is the only other Jayhawk who plays significant minutes, and he’s another guard that is deadly from long range. He’s making more than 44% of his three-point attempts this year, so Texas must always be aware of his location when he’s on the court.

Bill Self’s coaching has Kansas atop the league again
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Keys to the game

While the Kansas half-court offense is highly efficient and can beat you in a variety of ways, the Jayhawks also earn a lot of points in transition. They don’t force a ton of turnovers — Pomeroy has them ranked just 157th in that category — but they do push the tempo off of rebounds and made buckets. Texas must limit fast break points, and has to set up their defense quickly enough to limit the secondary break points as well.

In addition, the Longhorns have to break through the interior D. The Jayhawks are nearly impenetrable inside, and Texas is not the most reliable outside shooting team. If the Horns can attack like the rim like they were in the second half of the OU game, perhaps they can create foul trouble for Aldrich and the Morris twins. And of course, we all know that consistent inside play will open up the midrange and outside games, as well.

Finally, the most simple of our keys to the game is that Texas must execute. During this tough three-week stretch, the Longhorns have been plagued by simple errors, be it missed shots from point-blank range, stupid turnovers, or poor shot selection and possessions. I’ve purposely left free-throw shooting off this list, because it’s perfectly clear that this will not get better any time soon.

Obviously, if the Longhorns shoot 37% from the line again, as they did on Saturday, they have absolutely no chance to win tonight. But if they hover around their season average of 61% and actually do the other things correctly, they should be within striking distance during the final minutes of the game. And for a team that has struggled as much as Texas has lately, that’s pretty much all you can ask for.

While Kansas is a very scary team that plays well on both sides of the ball, they are certainly beatable. They were taken to overtime in road games against Kansas State and Colorado, and even let Nebraska — the worst team in the league — hang around with them at Allen Fieldhouse. The Frank Erwin Center is rarely a home-court advantage, but when Kansas comes to town, it always is. The Longhorns haven’t played very well as of late, but they have the talent needed to win this game and perhaps enough desperation to play like they cannot lose.

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