Men's Basketball

Starting 5: The sprint to the tournament is on as second half of league play arrives this week

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Posted January 29th, 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.

Ahem, Texas is just two games out of first-place, but there’s a catch.

Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski (21) reaches for the rebound over Mississippi forward Justas Furmanavicius (50) during the Longhorns win on Saturday. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

5. The best week Texas has had yet just ended. Now what?

Texas went 2-0 last week and beat two teams they should have beaten and beat them decisively.

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Iowa State didn’t let the Longhorns completely pull away until the final few minutes, but pull away they did. And Ole Miss? Any chance of an upset by the Rebels never left Oxford. Texas hasn’t had an easy win like that since early December, and even those wins seemed more fragile.

Texas beat Iowa State last week 73-57 at home and finally kept a team at bay in the second half, surging after the Cyclones had cut the lead to six points with under 10 minutes to play to land a 16-point win, its largest of Big 12 play.

Texas has made a habit of playing up and down to its opponents at times over the last several seasons, but Texas didn’t do that against the lowly Cyclones, who definitely cemented themselves as the worst team in the league last week (they were beaten soundly by Tennessee on Saturday).

Mo Bamba was tremendous with 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Kerwin Roach was just as good with 22 points and shooting 4-of-5 from 3-point land. Texas led by nine at halftime and, after one prolonged scoring drought in the second half, eventually kicked the game in high-gear for the win.

The next game Texas had a tiny amount of pressure. They were the overwhelming favorite to win their Big 12/ SEC Challenge game against Ole Miss, who just days before had knocked off Alabama at home. Instead of making this a game to sweat, the lead only changed twice, and Ole Miss’ largest lead, and one of the last, would come with 10 minutes left in the first half. Texas led by as many as 18 in the second half as Bamba, Roach, and this time Dylan Osetkowski, all had big games.

This had to be the team, and offense (they scored 85 points), that coach Shaka Smart envisioned having back in October.

Bamba ended the challenge game leaving little doubt who the best center in the league is. He scored 25 points, a career high, and grabbed 12 rebounds while blocking four shots.

Roach scored 16 and Osetkowski 17 while Jase Febres made four 3-pointers in the game.

Now Texas is 14-7 and 4-4 in league play. What comes next? The Longhorns are, at least, five victories away from essentially locking a tournament birth. Despite the Big 12 going 4-6 in the SEC Challenge matchup, going 9-9 in the league is likely getting a Big 12 team in the tournament. Can they get there?

Texas Longhorns Head coach Shaka Smart calls out a play for his team in the first half of Texas’ win over Iowa State last Monday. (Ricardo Brazziell/American-Statesman)

4. The path to a 9-9 or better record means holding steady at home and knocking off someone away from Austin

Texas has 10 games in the league left. Saturday’s ESPN College GameDay matchup with Oklahoma will mark the start of the second half of league play. Texas won’t have to worry about Texas Tech after Wednesday’s road trip to Lubbock. And that’s a the key word “road.”

In the second half of league play Texas has to travel to Oklahoma (who they get twice in nine games), Kansas State (who they also play twice in nine games), Fort Worth (TCU now needs to win all the games they can to save their tournament hopes) and their final road game of the season will be at Allen Fieldhouse (yes, Texas drew the near insurmountable task of trying to beat the Jayhawks on Senior Night).

There isn’t a single game just listed where Texas will be the Vegas favorite on the road, unless TCU craters and Texas keeps surging.

Texas must protect home court, and that’s what they’ve done all season. the Longhorns’ only loss at home in Big 12 play was in the opener against Kansas, where the Jayhawks made 17 3-pointers. Texas will get Oklahoma this week, followed by Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas will honor its three non-scholarship seniors with West Virginia to finish the regular season.

Texas can surely win all those games at home, something that’s been a league trend since the second week of league play.

If Texas beats the Red Raiders in Lubbock, 10-8 in conference play is reasonable. That would mean Texas could lose all the road games and go perfect at home. Lose at Lubbock, then Texas can’t afford to lose a home game and finish at least 9-9. It’s that simple.

That said …

Texas guard Matt Coleman (2) passes the ball as Iowa State guard Nick Weiler-Babb (1) looks on during the Longhorns’ win over the Cyclones last Monday. (Ricardo Brazziell/American-Statesman)

3. Texas has as good a chance to knock off the Jayhawks for the Big 12 crown as any. Seriously.

It’s clear now that West Virginia is not the team they once were after blowing a 20-point second half lead against Kentucky. You wouldn’t think the return of the second-leading scorer from last season would hurt a team, but West Virginia has not played well, for whatever reason, since Esa Ahmad returned from suspension. What’s even more odd is Teddy Allen looked like an early Big 12 Freshman of the Year player for the Mountaineers, but coach Bob Huggins barely plays him now.

Texas Tech lost to Iowa State by 18 in Ames. Iowa State just lost by 23 in Ames in Tennessee. So, what gives Tech?

Oklahoma ran out of ideas against Kansas defensively and just started fouling the Jayhawks’ worst free throw shooter. Kansas was on its way to a double-digit road win before OU coach Lon Kruger threw a curveball Bill Self couldn’t hit. Any good vibes OU had after beating Kansas were gone when Alabama beat them and continued to expose the Sooners’ flaws.

Right now there are only three teams in the league that appear to be improving as the season trudges along: Kansas, who is alone in first-place, Kansas State, who owns the league’s longest winning streak and Texas, who, West Virginia blowout and all, is 3-1 since losing in Stillwater.

Kansas is playing better and, as mentioned, it took OU fouling Udoka Azubuike for the Sooners to stage a comeback at home . But this Kansas team is beatable. If Kansas State beats them on Monday, Kansas could be tied with a handful of teams for first-place once Wednesday’s games are done and definitely would be tied with Kansas State on Monday for first-place.  Kansas loses, Texas wins and the Longhorns are a game back.

Big ifs involved. Not impossible ifs. And while Texas’ chances aren’t as good as the four teams tied for second in the league, they’re just as realistic.

However, given how well Kansas State is playing, if Kansas wins in Manhattan on Monday, the reality is Kansas enters the second half of conference play 7-2. They start the second half of conference play with back-to-back home games (Oklahoma State and TCU) followed by road games against two of the last-place teams in the conference (Iowa State and Baylor) who the Jayhawks have already beaten.

Yes, Texas’ Big 12 title chances are slim, but they aren’t as slim as it feels.

How slim they stay depends on this week.

Texas forward Mohamed Bamba (4) blocks a shot by Texas Tech guard Brandone Francis (1) during a game earlier this month. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

2. Texas plays at Texas Tech on Wednesday

Texas (14-7, 4-4) plays Texas Tech (17-4, 5-3) at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Lubbock on ESPNU.

The Texas Tech elevator pitch: One of the best teams in the Big 12 and one of four teams to win its SEC challenge game over the weekend when they beat South Carolina on the road 70-63. Tech is one of two teams in the Big 12 who has not lost at home in league play.

Tech is still a team with one of the best chances to top Kansas for the league title. The Red Raiders could be a win away from tying the Jayhawks by Wednesday if Kansas loses to Kansas State on Monday. The Red Raiders’ second-half schedule begins with two of the first three games on the road game against TCU and Kansas State.

Tech is still a darling at KenPom. They are ranked No. 11 and No. 3 in defense and No. 53 in offense.

This is another rematch game for Texas. The first rematch was a 16-point win over Iowa State at home. This is going to be a much more difficult game. Tech may have lost 67-58 in Austin, but they also lost by 18 to Iowa State and by 10 to Oklahoma on the road, so clearly they are better in the Panhandle.

While Tech is good at home, Oklahoma State pushed the Red Raiders in a 75-70 game, and West Virginia did what they do and blew a double-digit second-half lead and lost by one point in Lubbock. The only blowout home conference win was against Baylor, who is starting to look like a team that doesn’t want to play postseason basketball.

Interesting fact: No team in the Big 12 is as senior laden as Texas Tech. They have five seniors and two other players who are senior-age. Texas, on the other hand, in terms of scholarship players, is the least senior-laden team in the Big 12. There are no scholarship seniors at Texas. They have three senior walk-ons, but the oldest players are juniors Roach, Davis and Osetkowski. This phenomenon known as college athletics means that next year Texas will be one of the older teams in the league, while Tech will be heavily reliant on sophomores and freshmen/transfers/JUCO/ whoever they have coming next year.

Bottom line: If Texas plays like it has the last two games, the Longhorns will pick up a giant win on the road. If they play like they did at West Virginia, and they’re facing an even better defense, then Texas will be in trouble.

There’s no way Texas is looking ahead, right?

Oklahoma’s Rashard Odomes (1) reacts as Khadeem Lattin (3) and Kansas’s Malik Newman (14) look on during the second half of the Jayhawks win last week. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

1. College Game Day, Trae Young, Red River excitement and Oklahoma is coming to Austin on Saturday

What a day for Texas basketball Saturday could be.

The Oklahoma elevator pitch: Trae Young, Trae Young, Trae Young, Trae Young and an 11-win team from a year ago comes to Austin.

Sure, that sounds harsh, but the more I watch Oklahoma play the more impressed I am by Young and the more unimpressed I am by his surrounding cast. The problem for Texas is Young has been so good that despite getting little help from his team, Oklahoma is still 15-5 overall and 5-3 in league play.

It’s taken a monumental effort from one player to get that record. Young averages 30.3 points per game, best in the country. He averages 9.6 assists per game, best in the country. He is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and 83 percent from the free throw line.

Young is likely to win every national player of the year award that’s given. And he will be Big 12 Player of the Year.

Brady Manek is really good. He’s the other freshman for OU who averages 11.3 points.

While he is good, and Christian James is averaging 12.1 points, the Sooners get about a third of their scoring from Young (simple math: Young averages 30 points, OU scores about 91 points per game). It makes for an easy game plan to beat OU, but the best game plans are nothing if Young is throwing up guarded 30-footers and swishing them.

Or controlling the whole defense with his passing — by far his best skill — like he did for stretches against Kansas.

Oklahoma looks like it’s cracking, though, and Young grows a little more frustrated, it seems, with every game. It started with West Virginia and you could see he was, at the very least, annoyed during the Alabama game. The Crimson Tide weren’t unprepared for OU on Saturday. Coach Avery Johnson was imploring to his team in the huddle to make OU play defense, which is what other Big 12 teams have done.

Against Kansas, we were reminded that OU has one of the best coaches in college basketball on the sideline. Lon Kruger’s decision to foul Azubuike with more than five minutes left in the game stopped the Jayhawks from running away with a win in Norman. OU had run out of ides against Kansas defensively and so Kruger knew if he forced turnovers by fouling, his team would eventually get the shots they needed to come back and win.

That game showcased KenPom in action: Kruger knew his offense would eventually get a chance to win because they are No. 17 in adjusted offense at KenPom. He knew he couldn’t rely on his defense to stop Kansas because they are No. 64 in adjusted defense at KenPom.

Interesting fact: Oklahoma is likely going to have its third National Player of the Year winner in the last 10 years come to Texas this weekend. The first two, Blake Griffin and Buddy Hield, both lost their NPOY seasons in Austin. Texas snapped an OU 13-game win streak in 2009 to beat then No. 2 Oklahoma 73-68. Two years ago, in one of Smart’s best home wins at Texas, the Longhorns went on a 22-0 run late in the game to beat No. 3 Oklahoma 76-63. Will Trae Young be different?

Shaka Smart is 2-0 against Oklahoma at home and overall is 2-2 against Texas’ biggest rival. In fact, the last time OU won in Austin might have been one of the Rick Barnes breaking points. In his 17th season at Texas, Barnes lost to the Sooners 70-49 in front of the home crowd.

College Game Day:

So ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, the former coach at Virginia Tech and Long Beach State, who is co-host of ESPN’s College Game Day tweeted this about the crew coming to Austin next week:

The dig about the crowd drew a response from Texas’ new athletic director and social media wizard Chris Del Conte:

On one hand, Greenberg is right to question. Texas averages 10, 217 fans a game, which is fourth in the Big 12, but they also play in one of the largest arenas and drew well under 10,000 (9,123) for the Iowa State game last week.

On the other hand, this is Texas-OU. These teams combined to for 22 wins last season and still drew 10,000+ fans last season. They should have no problems getting people to the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday.

Bottom line: I like Texas’ matchup against Oklahoma. The Sooners have not handled elite defenses well this season and that’s what Texas has. The game will be won and loss on the other side. Texas’ offense hasn’t been good. Oklahoma’s defense hasn’t been good. The Sooners really struggled the last two games when guards attacked the basket (those guards were an All-American and the other a lottery pick, we know) so I’m looking at Roach to have a big game. Texas gets the win at home.

 

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