Men's Basketball

Starting 5: This could be the toughest week of the season for Texas

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Posted January 15th, 2018

Every Monday during the basketball season we give you five things Texas men’s basketball fans need to know about the week to come.

Losing a 12-point lead in the second half at Oklahoma State was not a good way to head into possible the toughest week of the season. Here are five things:

Fletcher Hamilton, 10, holds up a sign reading “Praying for Andrew, #1” during Texas’ win over TCU Wednesday. The school announced that Texas guard Andrew Jones has been diagnosed with leukemia. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

5. How to help Andrew Jones

Last Wednesday it was revealed that Texas sophomore Andrew Jones was diagnosed with Leukemia.

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For those who want to help, check out the link:

Oklahoma State’s Jeffrey Carroll (30) celebrates the Cowboys’ win over Texas Saturday. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman via AP)

4. Good, bad and ugly: Texas goes 1-1

Watching the Longhorns play Wednesday night against the Horned Frogs, I got the sense that TCU had no chance in the game. That changed in the final 10 minutes of the first half. I thought for sure Texas would lose that game.

Fair or unfair, that’s what the nearly three years of the Shaka Smart era has been. Sure Texas has won some close games, but Texas’ close wins over good, tournament-quality teams are few and far between.

That’s why beating an AP-ranked TCU squad desperate for a win was so big for Texas. The Andrew Jones news from earlier in the day made it one of the most emotional days in Texas basketball history. That transcended basketball.

But winning a game like that turned the emotional level to 11 because Texas just hasn’t won many games like that in crunch time under Smart.

Texas held on to beat TCU in double overtime 99-98. I’m still stunned Texas’ offense, missing two of their best players, scored 99 points, but it happened and, for Texas, it was supposed to be the turning point for the team.

Then Texas went to Stillwater, and now only Doc Brown and Marty McFly can accurately project what this Texas team can do moving forward.

Texas was up 12 with less than 10 minutes to play against one of the worst Big 12 teams — a 1-3 squad entering the day. The Cowboys’ only win was at home in overtime against the only team in the league that entered Saturday winless (Iowa State, who beat Baylor the same day). Texas needs to win that matchup.

As much as a Texas gets credit for beating the No. 27-ranked team in KenPom, TCU, losing to the No. 58 team in KenPom, Oklahoma State, cancels it out.

And now we need to ask a question few thought we would with Texas this season: Is Texas going to make the NCAA Tournament?

If the selection committee met today, Texas would not be on the bubble, but it’s close. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Texas as a No. 9 seed in his latest “Bracketology” projection.  That was before the Oklahoma State loss. Texas seems safely in the tournament now, as he didn’t list the Longhorns as a “last for in” or “last four byes.”

That’s because wins over TCU, Butler and Alabama look really good. The losses Texas have suffered are to some of the best programs in the sport: Duke, Kansas and Gonzaga. The road loss to Baylor is also a “good loss.” Even the home loss to Michigan looks great after the Wolverines’ start in Big Ten play.

But this OSU loss hurts. Can anyone honestly say Texas could go to Manhattan and beat Kansas State right now? That’s a big question because that’s the only other road game I can see Texas winning, unless you think this team can lose in Stillwater but win in Morgantown, Norman, Lubbock, Fort Worth and Lawrence?

Also, this assumes Texas can hold serve at home. With four Big 12 teams being ranked in the  CBS’ “Top 25 and One” top 10, going 3-0 at home against West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas Tech would be extremely difficult.

At 11-6 overall and 2-3 in the conference, Texas going 9-9 in Big 12 play would be an incredible accomplishment. It would mean going 7-6 from this point forward in league play with six road games remaining.

Let’s say that happens. Let’s say Texas beats Ole Miss at home in the SEC-Big 12 showdown. That’s a 19- 12 record. That gets the Longhorns in the tournament for sure — unless something goofy happens in the ACC and SEC.

While it’s early to talk about the tournament, that’s how razor-thing the margin is for Texas’ tournament hopes and in a way shows just how important that win over TCU was.

My gut tells me Texas is going to beat one of the four currently in first-place Big 12 teams (Tech, WVU, Oklahoma and Kansas) on the road and will safely be in the tournament.

Texas guard Eric Davis Jr. (10) looks to the hoop as TCU guard Jaylen Fisher (0) applies pressure during the Longhorns’ win Wednesday. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

3.  Mr. Davis is the key to everything

Is there a better Sixth Man in the Big 12 than Eric Davis? Second question: Is Davis eventually going get a start?

Right now Texas’ junior guard/forward Davis would be the runaway winner for Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year. He is averaging 8.8 points off the bench and averaging 22.6 minutes a game. He was biggest reason Texas beat TCU on Wednesday, scoring 22 points off the bench. In fact, Texas usually wins the game when Davis makes an impact.

Davis is 0-for-5 from the field against Michigan, Texas loses 59-52.

Davis is 6-of-10 from the field with five rebounds against Iowa State, Texas wins 74-70.

There are certainly games that Davis hasn’t had an impact that Texas has won. And Texas has lost games where Davis had impact, but Texas is far more likely to win when the Michigan native plays big.

And with Andrew Jones out for the year and Kerwin Roach out with a hand injury, will we see Davis join the starting lineup? He’s started one of the 16 games Texas has played this season. I don’t think that changes because he’s a weapon off the bench and he’s a veteran off the bench who knows how to do it, unlike freshman Jase Febres.

Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers argues a call with an official during the first half of the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Saturday. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)

2. Texas travels to West Virginia on Saturday

Texas plays one of the top teams in the nation this weekend.

The West Virginia elevator pitch: The Mountaineers will either be coming into this game following a win over Kansas, or they’ll be looking to snap a two-game losing streak and save their Big 12 title chances.

Either scenario is not good for the Longhorns, but that’s life when playing a team that, despite losing in Lubbock this weekend, will still be ranked in the AP Top 10 this week.

Regardless of what happens on Monday when West Virginia hosts Kansas, Baylor showed that West Virginia can lose at home despite not winning themselves. The Bears lost by one point. If Kansas wins, that would be back-to-back shaky/bad performances at home for West Virginia.

Just looking at this matchup in a vacuum, Texas fans can scream all they want “how do you beat a team that presses? You press them!” but this will be the most difficult game of the season for this all-freshman backcourt. Texas will need Matt Coleman to go back to the Matt Coleman that rarely turned the ball over, not the Matt Coleman who has made some questionable plays in Big 12 competition. He’ll be contending with one of three best players in the league, guard Jevon Carter, who may be the best defensive player in the nation.

This game will pit KenPom’s  No. 10-ranked defense (WVU) against KenPom’s No. 6-ranked defense (Texas). So that means this game will come down to which offense will make the most plays, and WVU (No. 32) has been worlds better than Texas (No. 122) in adjusted offensive rankings at KenPom.

That said, West Virginia volleys from terrific on offense when in transition to gawd awful to the eye on half court possessions. Which basically is to say that West Virginia’s M.O. hasn’t changed much from last season.

Against Oklahoma, the Mountaineers felt like they were trying to match poor shot selection for poor shot selection against the Sooners. The difference is WVU was forcing Trae Young and Company into those terrible shots. West Virginia sometimes feels like they run out of ideas and just throw up shots.

Statistically, what I just wrote seems crazy. WVU is the No.4 scoring offense in the country’s best league. But they are last in field goal percentage at 43 percent. They are eighth in 3-point percentage at 33.5 percent. They are middle of the pack (No. 6) in assists and assists/turnover ratio (No. 5).

West Virginia, though, is typically amazing at creating turnovers, though. They have 23 more steals than Texas Tech to lead the league in that category. They have a +7.9 turnover margin, with the defense averaging 19.9 turnovers a game.

But make West Virginia play halfcourt defense.

West Virginia is fourth in blocked shots, but they are eighth in the league in 3-point defense and fifth in field goal percentage. Fifth in that category isn’t bad at all, but Kansas doesn’t have an elite defense, yet they are holding teams to the same 40.2 percentage from the field as WVU.

Obviously the key to beating WVU is to break the press and force WVU to play halfcourt offense and defense and that’s not easy.

Interesting note: The biggest win of Shaka Smart’s career at Texas may be the road victory at West Virginia in 2016. That also could be the best Big 12 West Virginia team yet. The Mountaineers were loaded and ranked No. 6 in the AP poll. Texas at the time was 11-6 overall and battling injuries.

Before we get too deep into the similarities from two years ago, Texas was also 3-2 in Big 12 play, so not as dire as they are now. But this WVU team has a chance to be Huggins’ best yet in Morgantown, so like two years ago, a win over WVU would be season-changing and help lift Texas into the tournament at then end of the season.

Matchup to watch: Outside of the Coleman-Carter matchup, the one to watch is whoever Texas puts on freshman forward Teddy Allen. The 6-foot-5-inch Allen didn’t score the last two games against Baylor and Tech. That’s probably a big reason why WVU lost or nearly lost those games. Before then he had back-to-back 20-point games and scored 15 in the league opener against OSU. He played just five minutes against Tech. That’s probably because WVU had the return of Esa Ahmad in that game, but still, bringing Allen off the bench is big. So the matchup I’m looking forward to isn’t the one-on-one matchup, it’s the bench matchup. Who will be bigger, Davis for Texas? Or Allen for WVU?

Bottom line: I like looking at this way: Good teams rarely lose multiple games in a row. I don’t think Kansas wins in Morgantown because I don’t know if WVU can lose multiple games in a row and, I would bet that the percentage of teams who finished in the top three of their league standings rarely lose back-to-back games. So If Kansas beats West Virginia on Monday, that’s two in a row. And I don’t think WVU is losing a third. A win over Kansas, and with WVU possibly  overlooking Texas with a trip to Fort Worth the following Monday, I could see the upset happening.

But don’t bet on Texas beating WVU in Morgantown.

Head coach Chris Beard of the Texas Tech Red Raiders hugs assistant coach Mark Adams after his team defeated the West Virginia Mountaineers 72-71 Saturday. (John Weast/Getty Images)

1. Texas hosts Texas Tech

Texas Tech is the best team in the Big 12.

The Texas Tech elevator pitch: The Red Raiders have wins over West Virginia and Kansas (in Allen Fieldhouse) and their only league loss is on the road against Trae Young and Oklahoma. They also have two of the most lopsided wins in league play (24 points better than Baylor).

I think Texas Tech is the best team in the league, and I don’t think it’s all that close. Yeah, OU beat them by 10, 75-65, but I don’t think OU beats the Red Raiders on a neutral court and I really don’t think OU beats them in Lubbock.

Keenum Evans will be the hard-luck Big 12 Player of the Year loser this season. Last year that was Monte Morris or Jevon Carter who had the bad luck in being in the same conference as the National Player of the Year. The year before Kansas’ Perry Ellis got stuck behind Buddy Hield.

A case can be made for Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham, but Evans’ team is the biggest surprise of the league. He is averaging 17.5 points. He’s been the best player on this Tech squad.

But it’s not just Evans. Zhaire Smith, Norense Odiase and Jarrett Culver have all played well. This is a veteran team that made the NCAA tournament two years early two years ago and made the perfect hire when that coach, Tubby Smith, bolted for Memphis.

The coach who took over, Chris Beard, is now one of the front runners for national coach of the year and would be the Big 12 Coach of the Year right now if there was a vote.

Interesting note: Chris Beard graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in kinesiology in 1995. He was student manager for Tom Penders. He is as Texas as they come for someone born in Georgia. He’s coached all over Texas: Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, North Texas, McMurry University and Angelo State.

Matchup to watch: If Mo Bamba wants to play in the tournament, he could give his team a lift by dominating this matchup. Kansas center Udoka Azubuike had 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting against Tech, taking advantage of the Red Raiders’ obvious weakness: their front court. Zach Smith and Odiase are Tech’s best big men. It’s why when Kansas plays the Red Raiders again, The Jayhawks will probably try to get Azubuike more than six shots. It’s why OU senior Khadeem Lattin’s best game of the season (11 points and seven blocks) came against Tech.

If 6-foot-8-inch Lattin is getting seven blocks, Bamba could get more than 10 in this game.

Bottom line: Tech has the No. 2-rated defense in the nation. They are allowing just 60.8 points per game. They hold teams to 37.6 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from 3-point range. They’re the league’s best defensive rebounding team and are second in the league in steals and turnover margin. The only way I see Texas winning is if, like Oklahoma and Trae Young, they get a dominant performance from their star freshman. If Bamba has a game like he did against Kansas (22 points on 9-of-16 shooting,  15 rebounds, eight blocks), Tech could lose this game. Tech isn’t Kansas, who made 17 3-pointers to counteract Bamba’s night,  when it comes shooting 3’s. The Red Raiders are seventh in the league in 3-point percentage at 35 percent and are tied with Texas with the fewest 3-pointers taken.

This could be an old school, bully ball, attack the rim type of game against two KenPom top-10 defenses. But I think Evans could be taking his freshman counterpart to school, and that would mean a potentially long night for Texas.

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