That headline is a joke of course, as Texas has a very, very good basketball team that is probably going to beat UConn very, very badly today, especially if the Huskies play like they have in the past month. Still, I'm going to take a shot in the dark and say that the last time UConn fans really thought about Texas basketball seriously, it was when the Longhorns knocked UConn out of the NCAA tournament in the 2003 Sweet Sixteen. To help remedy that, we have invited Peter Bean, the author of SBNation Texas blog Burnt Orange Nation to shed some insight on UConn's next opponent. Hit the jump to see his thoughts. Or, you can head over to his neck of the woods to see his in-depth take on today's game as well as a few of my thoughts.
TheUConnBlog: Since we're based in the northeast, we don't get to see a ton of Texas hoops. Can you give us a quick primer on who to look out for? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Peter Bean:The big story about Texas basketball this year is that its elite composition is both new and not at all new. Folks in the northeast may or may not have noticed, but Rick Barnes has made Texas one of the 10 best programs in the country right now: he recruits exceptionally well, including two National Players of the Year--T.J. Ford ('03) and Kevin Durant ('07), plus a third, D.J. Augustin ('08), who was runner-up--and a steady stream of players drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft (Ford, Durant, Augustin, Daniel Gibson, Lamarcus Aldridge). More importantly, Barnes' Texas teams are winning with the talent; after a 19-13 season in his first year in Austin in 1998, Barnes won at least 22 games in each of the subsequent 10 seasons. Better still, Texas under Rick Barnes has never missed the NCAA Tournament, and has enjoyed consistent success, with one trip to the Final Four, three to the Elite Eight, and five appearances in the Sweet 16. So this year's strong Texas team didn't come out of nowhere.
What's new, however, is that for the first time Rick Barnes is enjoying some good fortune on returning players. Despite all that success I just mentioned, it's fair to say that early entries to the NBA have substantially held Barnes and Texas back. Following the '03 Final Four run, the '04 team would have been the consensus pre-season #1 had T.J. Ford not hurt his neck in a pick up game in the offseason and decided he couldn't risk coming back for his junior year. Two years later, Texas lost from it's '06 Elite Eight team Daniel Gibson, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Big 12 Player of the Year P.J. Tucker early to the pros, gutting Barnes' team just as Durant and Augustin arrived. A year later, Durant left after one season for the pros--without him, the Augustin-led 08 team made the Elite Eight; with him they would have cut down the nets. After that, it was Augustin who left early, leaving the '09 squad without a point guard. Texas fans will tell you that lots of things go into winning the biggest prizes in college basketball, and one of them is having some good fortune with the return of high-impact players. Rick Barnes hasn't had any of that.
Until this year. Though forward Damion James worked out for NBA teams last summer and seriously considered making the jump, he opted to return for his senior season and is on track to be a First Team All-American. Center Dexter Pittman has a professional career in front of him, but needed all four years to keep working on getting his body weight where it needs to be--to the 290 he plays at now, all the way down from the 370 pounds he weighed when he arrived on campus. Rick Barnes hauled in the a top-five ranked recruiting class this year, but if either or both of James and Pittman had departed for the pros, this group would be in a similar boat to the stellar '06 class of Durant, Augustin, James, and Mason, all four of whom started as true freshmen with the top upperclass players gone early to the pros.
That's probably more information than you wanted to know, but it does some useful work, introducing the squad's tremendous depth--perhaps the team's most important strength. UCONN fans can expect to see as many as 10 guys take the floor today, and a well-rested Texas team is likely to try and push the tempo and challenge the Huskies' thinner backcourt to keep up for 40 minutes. When Texas is doing things well, the offense is being run through Damion James, with cutting guards and a complementary high-low game involving Dexter Pittman on the blocks. The Longhorns' guards are a mishmash of strengths and weaknesses, but the most important players to watch will be point guard Dogus Balbay (the nation's best on-ball defender) and freshman Avery Bradley (ESPN's #1 recruit in 2009).
TUB: After climbing to No. 1, Texas struggled with both Texas A&M and Kansas St., were these games an aberration, or just a result of the pressure that comes from being on top?
PB: More than anything, the Big 12 is just a damn tough league. It has been for some time now, and it's especially nasty this year. Texas didn't respond particularly well to the physical aggression brought by Texas A&M on Saturday night, taking a full half to wake up and get in the game (erasing a 13-point second half deficit before winning in overtime). Texas can also blame itself somewhat for the loss to Kansas State, but my read on the game was that the Longhorns were tired on two days rest following the brutal, exhausting overtime slugfest with A&M. Damion James had nothing in the tank, and it showed, both in his play and, especially, in his court demeanor (blaming teammates for mistakes, not hustling back). I'll save my concern for after today's game if Texas comes out flat and offensively stagnant for a third game in a row.
TUB: Despite the fact that this UConn team struggles mightily when it comes to basketball fundamentals like "shooting" and "not turning over the ball," they have had a marked advantage against almost everyone they've played in athleticism/speed. What style of basketball do the Longhorns play, and how do you think it will match up against a team that can score buckets of points in transition/jump out of the gym?
PB: It's rare that this Texas team finds itself squared up with a team as athletic and strong as it is, but UCONN is definitely one of those teams. Texas is loaded with great athletes spread across all five positions (point guard Dogus Balbay may be the most athletically freaky on the team), and as mentioned before, there is no lacking for depth, liberating Barnes to push the tempo and take an aggressive approach to any given game, which I expect the Longhorns will this afternoon. Look for Texas to play aggressive man-to-man defense in the half court, mix in some timely pressing, and lots and lots of fast-breaking. UCONN's guards are talented ball players, but they're certainly turnover prone--Texas' on-ball defenders will play them tight and hard all afternoon, challenging for steals.
TUB: I know Texas struggled against Kansas St., but UConn really needs a win. Any chance the Longhorns decide to wait until after Saturday before they get the wake up call and destroy someone? Because that would be helpful.
PB: Hey, the good news for y'all is that Texas has hit its end-of-January wall, an annual event for Rick Barnes' teams as an always-tough non-con schedule wraps up and the slugging of Big 12 play begins. Typically, the offense goes backwards for 2 weeks, the players look exhausted and mentally drained, and the whole project looks incoherent. Rick takes his foot off the pedal at that point, lets them relax, and starts building a second crescendo meant to peak in March.
I can say that Texas looked gassed and out of sync against A&M and Kansas State. It's not at all inconceivable that they're still in the rut before the climb, in which case they'll have an awfully tough time winning on the road this afternoon. Hopefully (for us), they bottomed out at Kansas State. My prediction is that Texas used the long week to rest and regroup, and I'm expecting a strong performance today. Should be a fun one.