Shaka Smart has his work cut out for him. To call last week’s losses to Northwestern and Colorado disappointing would be underselling just how poorly Texas played in Brooklyn. And, while the next opponent doesn’t come with the kind of name recognition Texas fans might normally respect, the UT Arlington Mavericks bring a veteran squad with plenty of big game experience to Austin when they face a young Longhorn looking for answers. This won’t be a gimme.
Experience. UTA will go, at least, eight deep. Of those eight, there are four seniors and four juniors. The Mavericks return all five starters from last year, to boot. This is a team that’s qualified for a postseason tournament (last year’s CIT) and played multiple games at P5 schools. They won’t be afraid of heading to Austin for what will likely prove to be a sparse crowd on a Tuesday evening. There is experienced talent and playmaking on this team, so Texas is going to have to be ready to execute.
Perimeter shooting. The Mavericks rank 21st, nationally, in total three point makes and have six players who average at least one made three per contest. That includes Neal, Jones, Hervey and Charles who all have some ability to shoot from deep off the bounce or in catch and shoot. Texas is going to have to guard the perimeter well because both NU and CU shot high percentages against the Longhorns last week and Texas struggled to keep pace against either. If that happens again, it could put a ton of pressure on a Texas offense searching for playmakers.
The Mavericks look to be led by 5’11” junior point guard Erick Neal (9.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals per game). Neal, whose twin brother Derrick plays football at Kansas, is a Dallas Lincoln product and has manned the point guard spot for UTA over the last two seasons including being a first-team All Sun Belt selection last year as a sophomore when he led the league in assists. He is quick and deceptively strong. He wants to attack from the perimeter as a shooter and find driving angles. But he’s more of a pass first point guard and Texas is going to have to guard him as a facilitator and shooter, which makes him doubly dangerous.
Rebounding. UTA is not a big team. They don’t have a single rotation player bigger than 6’8” and, in their three losses, they have an average of -8 in rebounding margin. Clearly, Texas also struggles with rebounding, but the idea that the Mavericks probably won’t be able to make Texas pay on the glass is a big positive for the Horns.
Ball control and playmaking. UTA has Neal and he’s a good one. But, with the exception of their starting point guard, the Mavericks are devoid of lead guard talent and facilitation. Texas will look to force UTA’s guards and wings to be shot creators for themselves away from Neal.
Texas Keys: Offense
Ball movement to create open shots. Teams are defending Texas via a relatively vanilla approach. First, teams are breaking back off the release to keep Texas from getting out on the run. Second, they’re looking to help away from the ball to make post entries or straight line drives tougher. Third, they’re clogging the lane and daring Texas’ guards to shoot pull up jumpers. Lastly, they’re trying to influence the ball to the sideline or baseline to make rim protection easier. Texas, for their part, has struggled finding a perimeter shooter who can efficiently make pull up jumpers. They also lack a penetrator who can create lane touches at will off the bounce. Some of those things aren’t likely to go away any time soon. As such, Texas’ ball handlers and shooters need to look for Allen and Cleare when they can find them. And, when they can’t, they must look to make an offensive play off the catch when the spacing is there. If defenses are going to help away from the ball, there will be openings off the catch. But the only Texas player that’s been ready this year, consistently, has been Mack. That needs to get better moving forward or the offensive woes we saw in Brooklyn will only get worse and worse as better teams key on them.
Yancy, Davis and Cleare. Texas’ dependence on these three has been well documented even into the summer. Well, in Brooklyn, these three were remarkably consistent…16 points in 22 shots combined. Both times, the efficiency was 6-22 from the field. That’s just not going to cut it. Particularly when those numbers bore out from 88 minutes against Northwestern and 93 minutes against Colorado. Not good enough. Not easy to fix as they’re all three going to be asked to hit tough shots against ball defense, but it must get better or Texas won’t have the answers and may have to look to replace all three from the starting lineup.
Texas Keys: Defense
They’re not losing because of defense. The guards need to work harder to not put Cleare into rough situations. Everybody needs to box out and rebound better in space (but that’s as much an issue with the pieces on the squad as it is by effort, unfortunately). There are always little things that the young guys can work on to improve their ball defense and ball screen defense. But, the defense has forced teams to make tough shots. It’s just that they had to be perfect in NYC and they couldn’t be. Hopefully, they can find more times to turn defense into offense against a UTA team that has a propensity for live ball turnovers.
How frustrating it can be; watching the excitement and positivity created by the early season wins just totally vanish in two days in late November.
Texas played timid, unsure basketball at the Barclay’s Center and that’s going to get them beat.
Teams that lack true point guard playmaking don’t have the luxury of waiting for somebody else to turn up the heat on dribble drives and facilitation. It’s just not there.
So, they’re going to have to collectively step up and make it happen as a group.
While that might not get solved tonight, the process towards that happening must begin tonight because the rest of the non-con schedule is filled with losable games for a team that is struggling.
Hopefully the holiday break put the guys into a frame of mind where they can turn the corner and start being successful.
Shaka has hit work cut out for him.
Prediction: Texas 75 – UT Arlington 69
Projected Starting Lineup
Selected quotes from Smart’s Monday press conference:
On the team response following Brooklyn in practice: “I think our guys have been good. They’ve practiced hard. It’s more, I think when you’re dealing with guys that are in new roles, I think its more about the mental and emotional side than it is about the physical side because our guys give good effort in practice. They pretty much have to. The challenge, when you get out there in a game, is carrying that over and not letting anything block that. If there was to be something that blocked it, it would be something in their heads or something emotional. It’s something that I think a lot of teams early in the season deal with and that’s finding ways to be as good or better in a game than you are in practice. It starts in practice with your preparation and the way that you approach your opponent, the way you approach how you try to get ready to beat your opponent.”
On losing in BKN: Any game you lose is a setback, but basketball season is a long one. If you can learn from a setback, then it actually can be something positive in the long run. I think for us, those two games if you kind of look at them together, it can be a great learning experience. I told the team this, before the second game, is what you guys are going through is harder than you thought. That sometimes happens with young players. There’s a little bit of a sense when you’re a talented young guy is that it’ll come easier than it ends up coming. We all, in life, would love for things to be simple and easy. It’s not just in sports, but it just doesn’t work that way. Now, what do you do when it is hard? How do you respond? How much can you focus on the people around you to help them? When you see us play again and you watch us play in the coming weeks, that’s really going to be the best measure is how much are we willing to, as a team, focus on making the people around us better and making the people around us execute our process. When we get to the point when we do that at a high level, then we will be a much, much better team than the one that played in New York. Until we get to that point, we will still be dealing with some of the same challenges.”
On living up to potential: These guys are years away from actualizing their potential. As a team, your question is when will we be the best we can be as a team? I think that remains to be seen. I’ve said all along if we can be better with each week or each month and grow, I think we can make strides. Our first three games at home, there were some learning experiences and we made some real progress. We went up to New York, a different setting, had some challenging outcomes there. If we can grow from that, then I think you’ll see us be better. In an answer to your question, we’re still a ways away from where we want to be when this team is playing at its very best.”
On Banks’ ejection in BKN: “I don’t know how much I’m allowed to comment whether he should or shouldn’t have [been thrown out.] It was unfortunate. The guy was awkwardly on top of Eric and he was trying to get the guy off. I guess Eric was in an awkward position where he was in some pain. James is a very loyal kid, he’s a very protective kid of his teammates. Get to know James, he’s the furthest thing from a fighter, it’s not who he is. The judgement was made by the official. How did he handle the next day? He handled it pretty well. He was supportive of his teammates, he was good on the bench. It was certainly a game where we could have used him in the game. I know he wanted to play, but those decisions, at that point, were out of our control. We just had to move forward.”
On playing on the road in a hostile environment: “Going on the road presents different challenges. To be honest right now, it’s more for us about when that ball goes up in the game setting, carrying over the things that we work on and being able to have a clear mind for our process. I tell these guys all the time and it’s interesting because the Javan Felixes and Connor Lammerts of the world, they get it now. In order for us to be our best and in order for us to actualize our potential, we have to care about each other and care about what goes into winning above all things. Whether you’re at home or on the road that applies. Certainly when you’re on the road there’s more adversity, but we’ll focus on that when we go on the road.”
On Eric Davis: “He’s getting a lot of good looks. He’s going to continue to get good looks. People are really paying a lot of attention to Shaq, to Jarrett when the ball goes inside. Those guys are doing a good job sharing the basketball. You can’t be a great player when you’re frustrated. You can’t be a great player if you are feeling self-pity, but it is a natural reaction, particularly guys that are good shooters. It’s very troublesome for guys that are good shooters when they’re not making shots. Nobody is trying to miss shots. He wants to make shots as much as anyone, and that probably leads to the frustration. I think for him, the focus needs to be more on his teammates and more on helping his teammates do the things that go into being the best they can be. From his side of things, being a great defender, being a great facilitator with the basketball, and when the shot comes up making sure he takes it. I think one of the things that happens when you’re struggling is you can get a little hesitant, and that’s the last thing you want to do. You want to stay aggressive.”
On UTA: “They came into that game and I think they were up double figures in the first half. It goes into overtime. We make some shots in overtime, we win. From that game, I believe the five guys we started are all gone, and their five guys that they started are the same starting lineup now. They’ve got quite a few of their reserves back that played against us. It’s a veteran team.”
On Isom: “He’s still not practicing. He can do some shooting on the side, but he’s got to get to the point where he can run. He can walk now, but he’s got to get to the point where he can run and move on that thing. He’s never going to be confused with Usain Bolt anyway. Mo really, really wants to play. It’s just a matter of getting him to the point where he can move and function, obviously. In basketball, lateral movement is a big, big deal. Mo is such a great kid. He wants to be out there so much. We hope that he progresses as fast as possible.”
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