SCOUTING THE LONGHORNS
With a pair of home Big 12 wins in its last two games, Texas hopes to build some road momentum on its trip to Morgantown to face the Mountaineers. Playing away from the Frank Erwin Center hasn't been an easy task for the Horns and first-year head coach Shaka Smart, as they have dropped five of their seven contests outside that venue, including both league contests at Texas Tech and TCU. Still, UT is a capable Big 12 squad that will make a run at the NCAA tournament, and has a win over North Carolina bolstering its resume.
Smart has done a good job in the often-difficult process of molding a team recruited and built for one style of play into another. A power squad with lots of height and bulk, Smart is implementing his full court pressure system at Texas, but has to balance that with his roster, which simply wasn't constructed with that style of play in mind. Often, such a jarring clash will cause problems for a team, but Smart has adapted to his players on hand.
As might be expected, though, the strength of Smart's team now lies in the backcourt, especially after hulking inside force Cameron Ridley was lost with a broken foot after 11 games.. Guards Isaiah Taylor (Jr., 6-3, 185 lbs.) and Javan Felix (Sr., 5-11, 205 lbs.) pace the team in scoring at 17.2 and 10.8 points per outing, respectively. Taylor, the reigning Big 12 player of the week, fills the playmaking role with nearly five assists per game but also leads the team by a wide margin shots attempted, having launched 202 -- 60 more than Felix, who is playing quite efficiently across the board. Kendal Yancy (Jr., 6-3, 210 lbs.) rounds out the three-guard starting set, having stepped in to the starting role after Ridely went down, but has seen limited minutes even in that role.
Even without Ridley, the Horns deploy good height up front, with seniors Connor Lammert (6-10, 235 lbs.) and Prince Ibeh (6-11, 265 lbs.) holding down starting spots. Lammert, in some ways, is similar to Oklahoma's Ryan Spangler, who dominated the Mountaineers on the boards last weekend. Lammert averages six points and six rebounds per game, but is capable of a double-double on a given night, while Ibeh is a defensive specialist with 25 blocked shots and 4.2 rebounds per outing.
Smart goes to his bench a good deal as he works to find the best combinations with his roster. Nine players, excluding Ridley, average at least ten minutes per game, with guards Eric Davis (6-2, 185 lbs.) and Demarcus Holland (6-3, 190 lbs.) getting a good bit of time. Davis adds 8.4 points and 2.4 rebounds per outing, while Holland chips in with 3.8 and 1.9, respectively.
Smart, while trying to build the basics of his pressure defense in Austin, compliments West Virginia on its version of pressure defense over the past couple of years. His squad this year isn't to that level yet, but its clear with the rotations that he's playing, along with the loss of Ridley, that he'll try to get back to at least some of that style.
|WVU (15-2 / 4-1) vs. UT (11-6 / 3-2)||Wed Jan 20||7:00 PM EST|
|WVU Coliseum||Morgantown, WV||Series: UT 6-4|
|RPI: WVU -14 UT - 25||TV: ESPNU||Sirius/XM: 119 / 199|
The question for now, though is whether UT can bother WVU at all with any pressure (no one has really been able to do that this year) and how the Horns will respond when seeing the Mountaineer press. Texas has committed just 19 total turnovers in its last three contests, and are 28th nationally in turnovers per game and 32nd in turnovers per possession. Much of that is fueled by the experience of their top four guards. Only freshman Kerwin Roach appears to have trouble in that regard, so watch for WVU to try to deny the ball to players such as Felix and Taylor, and make either Roach or one of the bigs handle it in the open floor.
The grind of the Big 12 season is also a factor to watch here, as it's truly getting underway. How much emotion and toughness does WVU have after its double dip against Kansas and Oklahoma? Of course, the Mountaineers aren't out of gas by any stretch, but it can be difficult to muster passion through 18 consecutive league games, and Texas isn't a team that can be defeated by less than a very good performance. Some will look at the records and mark this down as a WVU win, but the Mountaineers will have to play every bit as hard as they did against the Jayhawks and Sooners to make that a reality.
WVU will also again need to be conscious of defending the 3-point line, as Texas has six shooters capable of doing damage from distance. Felix is the primary threat at 40.5% on the season, but up and down the lineup there are players capable of hitting a couple of shots from long range. If they are on target UT can make 10 or 12, which would put them in great position to win. That's just what the Horns did against Iowa State, as they made 13 of their 31 tries en route to a 94-91 victory.
Normally a monster in national shot blocking stats, Texas has suffered some in that stat with the loss of Ridley, who had 37 rejections through 11 games. Still, the rest of the Horns' roster has combined for 51 blocks on the year -- a number that eclipses WVU's team total of 47. No Mountaineer has cracked the double-digit mark in blocks year, although Jonathan Holgon, Elijah Macon and Esa Ahmad are all on the verge with nine each.
While West Virginia had a program first in facing the #1 and #2 teams in consecutive contests over the past week, Texas is also facing a challenge it has never seen before. The game against WVU, followed by a visit to Kansas this Saturday, marks the first time in program history that UT has played consecutive teams in the AP Top 10 in true road contests.
With just a bit more success from the free throw line, WVU could make itself even more difficult to beat. The Mountaineers have attempted 518 shots from the line this year (fourth nationally, and first per game) and get a free throw on 33.5% of their offensive possessions. WVU also ranks fourth in free throws made per game (20.1), but it's in their overall success rate that the area for improvement lies. There, WVU is 276th nationally with a 66% success rate. If that number could be boosted just a couple of percentage points, it would have meant 11 more points this year - enough to convert one of the team's losses to a win.
Smart's rebuilding job will really hit high gear next year, as five UT stalwarts exhaust their eligibility. Felix, Holland, Lammert and Ibeh will depart, while Ridley is also scheduled to do so, although his injury could allow him to petition for an additional year if he desires. Together the quintet has combined for 313 starts and 587 games played for the Longhorns.