Texas meets Seton Hall in Thursday matchup that lets the Longhorns gauge their progress
Beard on the 23rd-ranked Pirates: ‘They’re literally a basket away from being a top five or six team right now’
Gauging the Longhorns’ progress through the first seven games isn’t easy. Texas pummeled those well below their weight class but took a few licks from heavyweight Gonzaga.
The human pollsters think Texas is the seventh-best team in the country. The NCAA’s computer algorithm, which produces what is known as the NET rankings, has the Horns lower at No. 16.
Neither of those things truly matter at the moment since it’s still early December. Conference play doesn’t begin until January.
But that’s why Thursday’s game at Seton Hall is so fascinating. Texas (6-1) will face a team that’s somewhat moving step for step along the same journey. The Pirates (7-1) are No. 23 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 25 in the NET rankings.
It’s something of an equal-weighted matchup in the Big 12/Big East Battle at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
“We had a team meeting (Saturday night) in one of our rooms just to come together collectively about what we need to do moving forward, how we need to approach this game, how we need to approach these next couple of days of practice,” UT guard Andrew Jones said before the Horns left Austin.
“If we really want to be the team that we say we are and contend for championships,” Jones added, “we have to lock in and put on a better performance against high-major teams.”
Seton Hall already has an impressive road win at then-No. 4 Michigan. This veteran bunch also lost to Ohio State by three points. Coach Kevin Willard’s team also had big, easy wins over Fairleigh Dickinson, Yale and Wagner.
“I think there's a handful of teams in the country each year as the season goes on that are real contenders. Seton Hall's definitely in that neighborhood,” coach Chris Beard said. “They’re literally a basket away from being a top five or six team right now.”
Texas had no problem beating up lesser competition. Beard’s team has beaten only two teams ranked in the NET’s top 200 — Northern Colorado (No. 140) and California Baptist (No. 161). Houston Baptist, San Jose State, Sam Houston State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley all rank 233rd or lower.
There’s nothing wrong with playing lesser competition in nonconference play. In addition to facing Seton Hall, Texas has a date with Stanford (No. 158) on Dec. 19. Three more nonconference games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (No. 338), Incarnate Word (No. 349) and Rice (No. 196) may not tell us any more than we already know.
If nothing else, Thursday’s game is the Horns’ first chance to go back on the road and aim for 40 rugged minutes of basketball. Texas started slow defensively the first six minutes against Gonzaga and fell into a hole out in Spokane, Wash. A furious second-half comeback couldn’t stave off an 86-74 loss.
The Pirates will have the height advantage, too. “They're a big team, tall team, large team, whatever you want to call it,” Beard said. “Their identity is kind of their size.”
Playing well on the road is going to be critical when Big 12 play starts. Texas travels to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Iowa State all in the first half of January.
“We’ve just got to make sure that what we do at home travels,” Jones said. “We had that first pop of that early in the season. We just need to execute the game plan defensively and offensively and don't worry about our opponent and just be us.”
Texas made a similar trip under similar circumstances 17 years ago. Then-coach Rick Barnes took a team to East Rutherford, N.J., to face Seton Hall. There was plenty of hope with lanky freshman LaMarcus Aldridge, then just a highly-touted recruit from Seagoville.
“He's the one guy we can all look at and know, as the season goes on, he’s gonna get better,” Barnes said in early December 2004.
The Horns wanted to know where they stood then, too.
Texas would shoot 39.3%, but its defense saved the day. The Pirates were held to 36.8% shooting and made just three of 23 3-point shots. The Horns won 70-62 on Dec. 4, 2004.
Not much has changed. The Texas coach is still preaching defense and the Horns find themselves in high-profile, nonconference matchups.
Beard took the team a day early so the Horns could visit New York, see a Broadway show and visit the top of the Empire State building.
“These guys work so hard and make so many sacrifices, to take a trip like this where we can enjoy the trip, I don't apologize for anybody,” Beard said. “We understand it’s a business trip. Nobody understands that more than I do.”