The Longhorns enter Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden coming off of their best win of the season, a 68-64 victory over the UCLA Bruins, in which A.J. Abrams scored a season high 31 points that also tied his career high.
Villanova will take the court with an 8-0 record, but has yet to face a tough test. The Wildcats, coached by the dapper Jay Wright, have wins over Albany (78-60), Fordham (107-68), Niagara (77-62), Monmouth (71-48), Towson (64-47), Rhode Island (78-65), Penn (69-47) and Houston Baptist (93-57).
Even though the Wildcats have yet to be tested, there is little doubt they can play with any team in the country save North Carolina, which can be said for any team at this point. All of the main players from last season return led by a trio of very talented guards and vastly improved forward Dante Cunningham.
Leading the way for Villanova is junior guard Scottie Reynolds, who comes in averaging 14 points and 4.8 assists with the ability to score in bunches. Strongly built sophomore Corey Fisher teams with Reynolds to give the Big East program two solid ball handlers and scorers at guard. Joining the two combo guards is the quickly improving 6-5 guard Corey Stokes. Stokes is averaging 12.9 points and has knocked down 25 of 49 three-pointers on the season.
The Wildcats have always struggled against more lengthy, tougher teams in the paint. The play of senior 6-8 forward Dante Cunningham will tell the story of how much success Villanova will have this season in a rugged Big East conference that features several elite level interior players. Thus far, Cunningham is averaging 17.3 points and eight rebounds per game, but doesn't have much help in the paint rebounding the ball.
For Texas, the game will be another measuring stick. The Wildcats will play four guards at times, will trap, look to spread the floor and drive the ball with strong guards as well as kick to the open player for threes if straight line drives aren't available.
The Longhorns have been turnover prone early in the season and simply cannot commit unforced turnovers against a Villanova team that will make you pay with easy scores and three-point plays in transition. The play of Varez Ward off the bench will be key and Texas must make a concerted effort to get the ball inside of 12-14-feet to guys like Gary Johnson, Connor Atchley and even Damion James posting in the mid-range.
The all-time series is tied at 1-1 with the Wildcats winning the last meeting 76-69 in Philadelphia in 2007.
Tuesday's tip is set for 8pm central time and will be televised on ESPN from Madison Square Garden.
A Look at the Coaches
Rick Barnes, who is in his eleventh season at Texas, coaches the Longhorns. Barnes has a career record of 455-228, including 253-94 at Texas. Barnes is 16-10 in NCAA Tournament games at Texas.
Jay Wright has career record of 278-168 at Hofstra and Villanova. Wright is 156-83 at Villanova with a career record of 7-6 in the NCAA Tournament.
A Look at the Numbers
Texas shoots 46.2% from the field, 37.6% from three and 60.6% from the free-throw line.
The Wildcats convert 47.7% overall, 37.1% from the three-point line and 78.7% from the foul line.
The Longhorns surrender just 34.9% shooting and own a +6.9 rebound advantage.
The Wildcats give up 37.3% defensively and check in with a +10.6 rebounding margin.
The Longhorns are committing 13.9 turnovers per game, while Villanova is turning the ball over 12.3 times per contest.
The Longhorn Starters
G Justin Mason 6-2 Jr. (9.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.3 steals)
G A.J. Abrams 5-10 Sr. (18.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists)
F Damion James 6-7 Jr. (14.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals)
F Connor Atchley 6-11 Sr. (8.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks)
C Dexter Pittman 6-10 Jr. (6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds)
Key reserves include 6-7 sophomore Gary Johnson (10.3 points, 7.4 rebounds), 6-1 sophomore Dogus Balbay (1.5 points, 1.2 assists), 6-1 freshman Varez Ward (2.3 points, 1.7 rebounds) and 6-10 sophomore Clint Chapman (1.6 points, 2.1 rebounds).
The Wildcat Starters
G Scottie Reynolds 6-2 Jr. (14.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals)
G Corey Fisher 6-1 So. (11.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.1 steals)
G Corey Stokes 6-5 So. (12.9 points, 3.8 rebounds)
F Antonio Pena 6-8 So. (9.3 points and 5.6 rebounds)
F Dante Cunningham 6-8 Sr. (17.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals)
Key reserves are 6-5 junior Reggie Redding (7.6 points, 5.6 rebounds), 6-7 senior Shane Clark (5.7 points, 2.4 rebounds) and 6-8 senior Frank Tchuisi (1.5 points, 1.6 rebounds).
Keys to the Game
The Longhorns will face their toughest task offensively to date on Tuesday as far as guarding the ball. While Notre Dame, due to Luke Harangody, has a slightly better offensive team all-around, Villanova will represent easily the best trio of guards the Longhorns have faced this year.
Each of the three starting guards can score the ball. The Longhorns have made an early living with the intense man-to-man ball pressure at times 94 feet. Against Villanova, the Longhorn guards simply can't overplay and must slide their feet. Mason and Balbay still jump too much instead of the fundamental sliding of the feet to keep their man in front of them. Against Villanova, jumping on defense will result in straight line drives and free throw attempts.
The top three-point shooter for the Wildcats by percentage is Stokes, who has hit 25 of 49 on the season. At 6-5 with long arms, Stokes is tough to keep from getting a shot if when he desires. The best defense is a hard close out and a hand up. Forcing him to put the ball on the floor may not be the answer as Villanova keeps the floor spread very well and he'll then kick to another open shooter on rotation.
Keeping Villanova from making the extra pass will be key Tuesday. Allowing guys to play one on one and stay in front forcing long range, contested jump shots will keep the ball from moving and forcing tough rotations as well as keeping everybody involved and in the flow.
Villanova has a terrific rebounding back court and especially when Redding is in the game as a fourth guard. Texas must put a body on the Villanova guards at all times.
The Longhorns will have a decided length and rebounding advantage on the interior. Damion James should have a terrific rebounding game if he chases the ball from the perimeter. As well as rebounding, the Longhorns could opt to post James up against Stokes or Redding when the Wildcats are in man and he should have success. Texas hasn't looked to do this with James to this point in the season, but he has favorable matchups again.
Texas has moved James lower on the "money set" in recent games and that has allowed him to be in position to return to the rebounder he was as a sophomore. That is a must Tuesday as well as James playing under control with the ball in his hands. Forced jumpers early in a possession and turnovers off the dribble will create run outs against the Wildcats.
Don't be surprised if Villanova plays a lot of zone. Someone is eventually going to zone Texas with success. Because Villanova has quick, athletic wings and forwards, they have a very good shot to take away the high low look that Texas depends on against a 2-3 zone should Villanova play 2-3. A 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 zone/half court trap look is also a possibility.
If the game is close late, the Wildcats are as good a free throw shooting team as there is in college basketball. Every starter converts and consistently.