Big 12 Champs?

This week should prove huge in Texas's Big 12 title hopes. Here are three reasons the Longhorns could just pull it off.

Balance

Want to shut off the Longhorns' scoring faucet? That's fine. Pick who you want to shut down. There's just one problem: Texas doesn't have a true No. 1 scorer to target. Want to slow down West Virginia? Target Juwan Staten. Kansas State? Marcus Foster. Oklahoma? Buddy Hield. It's easier said than done, but at least you have somebody specific to gameplan for.

But what about Texas? Javan Felix takes the highest percentage of his team's shots when he's on the floor at 31.2 percent. So by that stat, he *should* be Texas's No. 1 scorer. But how many teams come into games with the Longhorns trying to stop the sub-6-foot wing? In fact, with Felix's shooting troubles (up until recently), Felix's scoring was almost looked at as the tipping point, as in "if Felix is making shots, then Texas gets awfully tough to beat."

Felix is averaging 15.5 points per game in Big 12 play, a good number, but 14th in the league. Isaiah Taylor is 17th in the league at 13.3 points per conference game and Jonathan Holmes is at 13.0 points per game, tied for 19th. Cameron Ridley is just under that at 11.5.

In Big 12 play, Texas has had eight players score in double figures and five score 15 points or more in a game. Against West Virginia, all five starters put in a double-digit scoring performance.

Does Texas have guys capable of that 18-to-20-point outburst? Of course. But the Longhorns don't depend on anybody to get there. And that makes the Longhorns that much tougher to defend. Add in the fact that Ridley produces incredibly well for a low number of designed (and followed-through) post touches and Texas is capable of scoring through a variety of people in a variety of ways.


Scrap

I've said before that I do think Texas's talent is somewhat undersold. The Longhorns obviously found a tremendous gem in Taylor, who slipped through the cracks. And Ridley (five stars), Holmes (four) and Felix (four) were all highly regarded coming out of high school. Holland is tremendous at what he does as a defender, hustler and passer (he actually leads the team in assists in conference play). Even going to the bench, Prince Ibeh was a four star that Texas had to beat several national schools for, and the Longhorns have a bevy of young, talented role players who can do something very well.

But I still understand what people mean when they call Texas under-talented. There isn't a Kevin Durant to score 25 points when the effort isn't there and help carry the team. Texas isn't under-talented in the sense that the Longhorns' don't have talent. They're under-talented in that they can lose each game if they don't bring a full team effort.

When they do — as they did against Kansas in Austin — it's impressive to watch. The Longhorns are one of the Big 12's best rebounding teams, they're the league's best defense in conference play and when they come to play, they can make everything difficult for their opponents with their combination of length and athleticism* (more on this in a moment).

When Texas doesn't show up, the Longhorns can lose, as they showed at Kansas State, which out-toughed Texas in Manhattan. That's why this team's relentless attitude, when it has been there, has been so important. And Texas will need to tap into that to win the Big 12.


Matchups

Texas is perhaps the most awkward team in the Big 12 to match up with because of its combination of blazing speed in the backcourt and pounding strength in the frontcourt. That dichotomy was on display against Kansas, when Ridley, Holmes and Ibeh throttled the Jayhawk offense in the paint with power, and Taylor sped past Kansas points guard Naadir Tharpe on the other end to score a game-high 23.

Why bring up the Jayhawks? Not only are they the top competition for the title, but they're actually the closest team to being able to match up with Texas. Few teams have a big man capable of playing with Ridley, all of 6-10 285 with a 7-4 wingspan, though the Jayhawks have a lottery pick at center in Joel Embiid. And few teams can match the quickness that Texas has in the backcourt.

It hasn't been unusual in recent years for teams to have one or the other, and for them to exploit that to make a Big 12 run. Kansas in particular has dominated the post for the last several years, while Missouri made a nice run a few years back with a smaller lineup predicated on Kim English at the four. That lineup, as would be expected, was hyper-efficient offensively, and not-so-much defensively.

And that's where the Longhorns have a chance to be special. With a three-guard lineup, Texas has all the speed that smaller teams have and can race up and down with anybody. And with monsters like Ridley and Ibeh (and Lammert off the bench as well), Texas has the bulk and depth of size down low. The key to it all is Holmes, who is equal parts braun and skill, a stretch-four capable of knocking down threes at a high clip (an excellent 38.6 percent on the season) and top-200 rebounder (both offense and defense) and shot-blocker per KenPom.

In a way, Holmes is a microcosm of the Longhorn lineup as a whole in terms of its versatility and ability to play a fast, up-and-down game and the raw power to win a muddied-up game around the basket. Few teams in the league are built that way, and it's a big part of the reason Texas has been so successful.

Even if Texas doesn't win the league, those matchup problems could be a big part of the reason the Longhorns will be a dangerous team to play in March.


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