December 23, 2008

The BIG Preview: Horns hit the road

The Basics

The Longhorns return to the court after a tough loss to Michigan State in Houston over the weekend with their first true road test of the season at Wisconsin at 8:30PM. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Series vs. Wisconsin

Wisconsin leads 4-1. Last meeting: Wisconsin 67-66 (Dec. 29, 2007; Austin)

Post-Michigan State Notes

• Texas sophomore Gary Johnson scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed five rebounds against the Spartans.

• With his 15 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday, junior Damion James recorded his fourth double-double of the season and the 25th of his career.

• The 63 points by the Longhorns on Saturday were a season-low, as were the 29 points that they scored in the second half.

A.J. Abrams (eight points) was held under double-digits in points for only the second time in 11 games this season.

• The Spartans actually shot a season-low by an opponent at the free throw line (8-of-17) with a .471 mark.


Horns fall out of top five, stay in top 10

Even with the loss to the Spartans, the Longhorns remained in the top ten in both national polls, as they currently rank 8th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and 9th in the AP Poll.

One tough schedule

The Longhorns are concluding a pretty taxing stretch that will see them take on five ranked or previously ranked teams before the start of Big 12 play.

Overall, here are the early games of note that should play an important role for the Longhorns later in the season when it's time to talk tournament seeding:

November 25th - vs. No. 8 Notre Dame (L 81-80)
December 4th - vs. No. 9 UCLA in Austin (W 68-64)
December 9th - vs. No. 12 Villanova in New York City (W 67-58)
December 20th - vs. No. 18 Michigan State in Houston (L 67-63)
December 23rd - at Wisconsin in Madison

Defense leading the way

If there's one thing we know that we can take to the bank about this year's team, it's the fact that the Longhorns can play some nasty defense. After 11 games this season, the Longhorns have proven to be one of the nation's most intimidating defensive units, as they have held their opponents to 60.6 points per game, 39.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from 3-point range. Through those first nine games, the Longhorns have also recorded 84 steals and 69 blocks. By comparison, UT's opponents have tallied 72 steals and 30 blocks against the Longhorns.

By comparison, lest year's Longhorn team that reached the Elite Eight allowed 64.9 points per game, 38.9 percent shooting from the floor and 32.6 percent shooting from long-range.

Abrams keeps gaining ground

A.J. Abrams is not only the Big 12's top returning scorer this season, but he's also on his way towards becoming one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the program. So far this season, he's averaging 19.7 points per game through the first 11 games, while making 33-of-70 (47.1 percent) from 3-point land. Overall, he's hit the 20-point mark on 28 different occasions for the Longhorns during his career.

Heading into today's game against Texas Southern, Abrams ranks seventh on UT's all-time scoring list with 1,606 points and trails No. 6 Jim Krivacs (1,673) by only 67 points. If Abrams can average a minimum of 20 points per game this season, he will move into the No. 3 slot all-time among Longhorn career scoring leaders and would have Terrence Rencher (2,306 points) and Travis Mays (2,279 yards) in his sights.

If he averages 20.0 points per game this season, he'd be on pace to finish with 2,030 and that does not include any potential post-season games. Even if he averages only the 16.5 points per game that he averaged last season, he'd still be on pace to finish the regular season with 1,921 points, which would put him within 37 points of Reggie Freeman for the No. 3 spot and he'd still have the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments remaining to play.


Mason moving into rarefied air

Junior point guard Justin Mason knew coming into this season that the Longhorns were going to lean on him to become a better distributor of the basketball for his teammates and he hasn't let anyone down through the first quarter of the season.

Mason is currently averaging a career-high 5.4 assists per game and even more important, he's averaging a 2.6:1 assist to turnover ratio, which ranks among the best marks in school history.

In the last five games, Mason has taken his newfound playmaking ways to new heights, having dished out 31 assists and committing only four turnovers, which translates to a near-ridiculous 8:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Overall, Mason's strong start to this season has him within the best career assist-to-turnover in school history.

Here's a look at the numbers:

Top Career Assist-to-Turnover Ratio in UT History (since 1982-83)

1. T.J. Ford (2002-03) - 2.21
2. D.J. Augustin (2007-08) - 2.05
3. Justin Mason (2007- ) - 1.99
4. Alex Broadway (1985-88) - 1.80

NBA Longhorn Notes

Former Naismith Winner T.J. Ford hit a 15-foot jumper with 3.6 seconds left to beat the Philadelphia 76ers 95-94 on Saturday night. Ford finished the night with 25 points, six rebounds, five steals and three assists. Overall, Ford is averaging 14.9 points and 5.3 assists for the Pacers, but his play in the last five games has been even better, as he's averaged 21.3 points.

Kevin Durant scored 26 points on 9-of-17 shooting in a 102-91 loss to Cleveland on Sunday.

About Wisconsin…

Yes, I know you remember the Badgers after their stunning win over the Longhorns last year in Austin on senior guard Michael Flowers' three-point shot in the final seconds.

There are a lot of things that will appear both similar and drastically different to the Longhorns when they face the Badgers on Tuesday night. On one hand, you know what you're going to get with this group - tough defense and a patient/ball-protective offense. You can pretty much take those personality traits of the team and bank on them each year.

On the other hand, this is a different team than the one Texas faced last December. Flowers is gone. So is first-team All-American Alando Tucker. In all, three starters from last year's 31-win team are gone and the Badgers are still trying to find their way as a team with Christmas approaching.

Leading the way for the 9-2 Badgers, who rank 29th in the nation in scoring defense (58.4 points per game), is 6-7 power forward Marcus Landry, who is the younger brother of NBA player Carl Landry. The second-team All-Big 10 selection from a season ago is playing at an even higher level this season, averaging a team-best 12.5 points per game. Although he has the ability to take his game inside with the best of them, Landry's versatility is one of his biggest strengths, as his ability to take his offensive game inside/out makes him a difficult match-up for opposing teams,

More than anything, Landry is a guy that maximizes his scoring opportunities as well as anyone in the country. Although he averages less than 10 shots per game, he's shooting 51.0 percent from the floor and 44.0 percent from three-point range this season. He also leads the team in steals (12) and blocks (21), while ranking second in rebounding (4.5).

While Landry is the team's steady rock, 6-0 junior guard Trevon Hughes continues to stir the drink for the Badgers on both ends of the floor. The cat-quick Hughes came into the season with a reputation for being one of the most explosive guards in the Big 10, but there were questions about his decision-making at the point and his ability consistently knock down shots.

The good news for the Badgers is that through 11 games, Hughes has passed both of those pre-season tests with flying colors, as he's sporting a clean 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, while also shooting extremely well (46.7 percent shooting from the floor and 46.3 percent from long-distance) from all areas of the court.

Outside of those two, the other player that the Badgers really turn to on the offensive end of the floor is 6-2 junior guard Jason Bohannon, who currently averages 10.6 points per game. When the Badgers are really good, this guy is consistently knocking down shots, but that hasn't happened much this season and it's one of the biggest reasons why the team has had trouble putting teams away all season.

As the Big 10's Sixth Man of the Year in 2007-08, Bohannon built a reputation as a guy that can knock down the outside shot, but he's only converting 33.7 percent of his shots from the floor and 32.8 percent from behind the three-point line. Part of his problems this year deal with the fact that his heightened role on the team requires him to focus more attention on defense. He's likely going to have to chase Texas guard A.J. Abrams all over the floor tonight and it's possible that the commitment to covering Abrams will take away from his offense. If that's the case, the Badgers will have a tough time beating the Longhorns because they have even fewer consistent scoring options than the Longhorns as a team.

If you're looking for a player that you'll probably hate by the end of the night, keep an eye on 6-7 senior forward Joe Krabbenhoft. Although he's the only member of the starting line-up that can't really light it up from outside, this guy does a little bit of everything on the court for the Badgers and when the game is over, his hands will be all over the stat sheet. Krabbenhoft currently leads the team in rebounding (6.4) and free-throw percentage (90.9), while ranking second on the team in assists (29). There's nothing flashy about his game, but he's a scrappy guy that is not going to be outworked on either end of the floor.

Overall, the Badgers will play seven guys that average nearly 20 minutes or more per game, but this is a team that counts on its starters to handle the overwhelming majority of the scoring load, but there's no dominating player on that end of the court.

Four of the five starters can step outside and knock down the three-point shot, which means the Texas big men cannot afford to give their counterparts too much room around the perimeter when playing man-to-man defense.

This is an efficient Badgers team that's going to slow the game down on offense and work the shot clock on every possession until they get a good look. They have a +5.7 rebounding margin over their opponents, but the fact that they average only 33 per game shows just how much a premium will be paid on shot selection and second-chance points. The Longhorns must do a better job on the glass tonight than they've done in recent weeks and that definitely includes keeping the Badgers off the offensive glass, an area that has really been a sore spot for the Longhorns in their last five games.

The Three Keys

1. Get the ball out of Hughes' hands. When Wisconsin is really rolling offensively, it's when Hughes is able to create penetration off the dribble and open up scoring opportunities for his teammates. His size and quickness make him a tough individual match-up for the Longhorns, but the team must find a way to keep Hughes in front of them.

2. Limit the second-chance opportunities. Wisconsin loves to take their air out of the ball and they'll eat up a lot of time on the clock on their offensive possessions, which means that if you can't keep them from getting offensive rebounds, they are going to eat up minutes off the clock at a time. The Badgers aren't going to give up many offensive rebounds when they are on defense and it's vitally important that the Longhorns do the same.

3. Get Abrams involved early. He's this team's go-to-guy on offense and when he's not going this team really struggles to find steady offense, especially when forced into a half-court game. Well, this is going to be a half-court game for 40 minutes and after being limited to eight points against Michigan State in a loss, the Longhorns better get Abrams involved or this could be a very ugly offensive night for the Longhorns.

The Texas line-up

The starters

Guard - A.J. Abrams - 5-10 senior - (19.7 points, and 2.6 rebounds)
Guard - Justin Mason - 6-2 junior - (7.5 points and 5.4 assists)
Forward - Damion James - 6-7 junior - (14.1 points and 8.0 rebounds)
Forward - Connor Atchley - 6-11 senior - (6.9 points and 3.7 rebounds)
Forward/center - Dexter Pittman - 6-10 junior - (8.4 points and 4.4 rebounds)

The next five

Guard - Dogus Balbay - 6-0 sophomore (1.0 points and 1.3 assists)
Guard - Varez Ward - 6-2 freshman (3.5 points and 2.7 rebounds)
Forward - Gary Johnson - 6-6 sophomore - (9.5 points and 6.2 rebounds)
Forward/center - Clint Chapman - 6-10 sophomore - (2.1 points and 2.3 rebounds)
Forward - Matt Hill - 6-10 sophomore - (0.0 points and 1.0 rebounds)

The Wisconsin line-up

The starters

Guard - Trevon Hughes - 6-0 junior (12.1 points and 2.7 assists)
Guard - [db]Jason Bohannon/db] - 6-2 junior - (10.6 points and 3.1 rebounds)
Forward - Marcus Landry - 6-7 senior - (12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds)
Forward - Joe Krabbenhoft - 6-7 senior - (7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds)
Forward - Keaton Nankivil - 6-8 sophomore - (4.9 points and 3.9 rebounds)

The next five

Guard - Jordan Taylor - 6-1 freshman (0.8 points and 0.9 rebounds)
Guard - Rob Wilson - 6-4 freshman - (2.4 points and 1.0 rebounds)
Forward - Tim Jarmusz - 6-6 sophomore - (1.9 points and 1.5 rebounds)
Forward - Jon Leuer - 6-10 sophomore (9.9 points and 3.7 rebounds)
Forward - Kevin Gullikson - 6-7 senior - (0.7 points and 0.2 rebounds)

And finally…

In our quest to provide you with a tidbit in each preview that teaches you something you might not have otherwise known, we give you this…

39

That's how many more blocked shots the Longhorns have this season than their opponents. That equates to an average of 3.6 more blocks per game than their opponents. To give you an idea of what that means, the Badgers (a very good defensive team) have 28 fewer blocks in the same amount of games and have a modest 1.6 edge per game over their opponents.

Here's a look at the blocks per game average of the nation's top 10 teams (using the AP Poll) through Monday (national team ranking in parenthesis)

1. U. Conn (2) - 4.0
2. Wake Forest (6) - 3.7
3. Texas (9) - 3.6
4. Gonzaga (7) - 2.8
5. Purdue (10) - 2.6
6. North Carolina (1) - 2.4
7. Oklahoma (4) - 2.3
8. Duke (5) - 2.0
9. Pittsburgh (3) - 1.0
10. Notre Dame (8) - -0.7


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