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Locking Horns: Texas Preview

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The MSU-Texas series is becoming a real, live nonconference basketball rivalry.  After Wednesday's game, the teams will have played each other seven times since Tom Izzo and Rick Barnes became head coaches at their respective institutions--including each of the last five seasons (all in pre-conference play).  Last year's turnover-inducing stampede by the Longhorns in Austin tied the series at 3-3.

This year's Texas team looks a little different than the last few versions MSU's played, particularly on the interior.  The indefatigable Damion James and the just plain immense Dexter Pittman have both graduated.  Guards Avery Bradley and Justin Mason have also both moved on (Bradley to the NBA).

With James and Pittman gone, Barnes' squad is now more guard led, with 6'7" sophomore swingman Jordan Hamilton joined by 6'3" freshman guard Cory Joseph (brother of Minnesota's Devoe) in the back court.  6'6" senior forward Gary Johnson and 6'8" freshman forward Tristan Thompson, meanwhile, are the two main options in the front court.  Those four players are all averaging 28 minutes or more per game.  Five other Longhorns average between 15 and 20 minutes per contest.

Despite the team's relative youth among the major contributors, Texas is off to a 9-2 start this season.  The team has split its four games against quality opposition, beating Illinois (in OT) in New York and North Carolina in Greensboro, while losing to Pittsburgh in New York and USC on the road.  KenPom pegs the Longhorns as the #22 team in the nation at the moment.

When Texas Has the Ball

Texas has been up and down on offense, ranking only 52nd in adjusted offensive efficiency.  The main issue has been simply making shots.  The team ranks just 144th nationally in both 2-point and 3-point shooting percentage and has made just 66.2% of its free throws (slightly ahead of MSU, though, I should note).  Hamilton (19.4 points/game on a .471/.429/.766) has been very, very good, playing a role comparable to Durrell Summers' during last season's NCAA Tournament as a big guard taking on the main scoring role.  Joseph has also been solid as a true freshman, averaging 11.9 points/game on a .500/.413/.690 shooting line.  Burnt Orange Nation notes that Joseph has been coming on strong as the season progresses:

This is the Cory Joseph that makes Texas a contender in the Big 12. In his first five games as a Longhorn, Joseph struggled. His point totals were 5, 8, 10, 2, and 9. He jumper looked off and teams were starting to pack the paint to defend Thompson and Johnson without repercussion. I wrote earlier this season that Texas needed to have either J'Covan or Cory emerge as a legitimate third scorer, otherwise, the Texas offense was going to become too easy to defend-double Thompson, don't leave Jordan, and Texas can't score. Over the last six games, Joseph has complicated that game plan considerably. He is hitting the long ball, attacking off the bounce, and is clearly an offensive weapon. In his last six games, his point totals are 14, 16, 9, 19, 18, and 21.

That 21 came in Texas' win over UNC on Saturday.  He and Hamilton scored 45 of Texas' 78 points in the 2-point win over the Tarheels.

Other than Hamilton and Joseph, the only Longhorn player with an effective field goal percentage about 48% is senior point guard Dogus Balbay, who rarely shoots the ball.  Johnson and Thompson are both averaging in double digits but aren't doing it all that efficiently.  Thompson was a very highly-touted recruit who's taking a little time to adjust to the college game on offense, shooting just .471 from the field and .468 from the line.  Johnson is also under .500 from the field (.495 on 2-pointers) although that's not a bad number for a guy who takes a lot of mid-range jumpers (a skill he used to drop 20 on MSU two years ago).

Texas is good but not great in the other three offensive four-factor components.  Everyone but sophomore guard J'Covan Brown takes good care of the ball.  Thompson leads the way on the offensive glass.  Johnson and Thompson both get to the line frequently.

The MSU defense will look to extend on Hamilton and Joseph and force other players to beat them.  As MSU's only big guard, Durrell Summers will need to perform at a high level on defense.  While Korie Lucious and Keith Appling are both smaller players, their lingering injury issues from Saturday's game (Lucious' situation sounds more serious than Appling's) are concerning in terms of MSU having enough guards to run out at the Longhorns to try to wear down Hamilton and Joseph as the game goes on.  With his combination of size and tenacity, Mike Kebler could actually be an asset on defense, but is distinct liability on offense.  I'm not sure Austin Thornton has the foot speed to keep up with the two Texas sharpshooters.

Garrick Sherman and Delvon Roe will be expected to guard Thompson straight up, while Draymond Green keeps track of Johnson in and around the lane.  Defensive rebounding, a bugaboo for MSU to date, looks to be the statistical key.  Against a team that doesn't shoot the ball all that well, you have to make sure they can't make up for it on volume.

When MSU Has the Ball

Texas has made its money (figuratively speaking, of course) on defense this year, ranking 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.  Inverse to the situation on offense, the team's strength has been forcing tough shots.  The Longhorns have held opponents to a startling .390 two-point shooting percentage and an also-very-stingy .287 three-point shooting percentage.

Despite the fact Rick Barnes employs some 2-3 zone (as reported in the BON post linked above), Texas has a distinctly man-to-man profile.  The team doesn't allow opponents to get off a lot of 3-pointers (24.4% of FGA) and forces opposing players to beat them one-on-one (just 40.0% of made field goals have been assisted).  While the Longhorns have forced relatively few turnovers this season (Def TO% of 20.1), expect Barnes to extend his defense as he did last year and try to force MSU into bad decisions with the ball.  Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green will need to make plays going toward the basket to make the Texas defense pay for aggressive perimeter play.  MSU won't be able to sit back and rely on its stellar 3-point shooting in this game.

Given MSU's turnover issues through most of this season and Texas' excellent field goal defense, rebounding is just as big a key for MSU on the offensive end.  While Hamilton and Johnson are both very good defensive rebounders, the Longhorns aren't great on the defensive glass, ranking 91st in the country in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage (30.3).  The MSU big men will need to be relentless in going after misses.  With Pittman out of the way, Derrick Nix's bulk could provide an edge for 10 minutes or so in that department.

Bottom Line

KenPom predicts a 72-66 win for MSU in a 71-possession game.  That's largely a function of home-court advantage.  (On that note: The students are on break, but this is the Izzone reunion game so the place should still be rocking.)

Given the nature of the college basketball season, no pre-conference game is a do-or-die deal, but this one feels pretty big for MSU.  Win the game, and you can spin the pre-conference results as acceptable, if far from ideal, for MSU: two wins against ranked opponents and a 4-3 record against top-100 opponents, with the three losses all coming away from home against teams with top-ten potential.

Lose the game, and it's harder to stick with the storyline that MSU is still a top-15 team that's just struggled to recover from offseason injury problems and run into a series of tough game situations.  We're six weeks into the season and this game will be played in friendly confines.  The rationalizations will be harder to come by.

The Lucious/Appling situation would be one such rationalization, I suppose.  And it's a pretty big concern going into the game--particularly in Lucious' case, as he's become a very useful playmaker against pressure defense, keeping MSU in several games this season when they trailed early.

Putting that situation aside, this game is an opportunity for MSU to use its experience to outplay an equally-talented opponent, but an opponent relying on young players to win in a hostile environment.  If that doesn't happen, the ensuing eight-day break will be fraught with soul-searching for the MSU players and head-scratching for the MSU fanbase.