UT Hoops preview: vs NDSU

Rick Barnes at the Drum. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Rick Barnes at the Drum. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Hoops Preview: NDSU
Date: Friday, November 14
Time: 7:00 Central
Television: LHN
Location: UT

Opponent Strengths:

A year ago, Texas was coming off a 16-18 season, had lost four of their top five scorers, were picked 8th in the preseason Big 12 polls and were wondering whether or not head coach Rick Barnes would even last past the middle of the season before getting fired.

And, now, Texas is coming off a 24-11 season, returns their entire team other than their seventh scorer, is the preseason #10 nationally and are welcoming a recruiting class which includes two big time prospects with size and skill

And, instead of losing his job, Rick Barnes was inducted into the Texas Hall of Honor last Friday night. Now his team welcomes the North Dakota State Bison to town as the first leg of the 2K Classic.

The Bison, under first-year head coach David Richman, are coming off the most successful season in their school’s history (a 26-7 campaign that included an opening round victory over Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament). Former coach Saul Phillips left for Ohio University in April and the Bison promoted long time assistant Richman into the primary position.

Fortunately for Richman, the groundwork was laid by Phillips for a solid program (a great arena, a solid recruiting base, a community of supporters who are faithful and used to winning.

Unfortunately for Richman, the Bison lose their top three scorers, their top three rebounders, their top assist man, and their top shot blocker when they lost three All-Conference performers in Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, and TrayVonn Wright.

The Bison look to be led by 6’3” combo guard Lawrence Alexander (a senior from Peoria, IL who averaged 11.1 pts, 4.3 rbs, 2.6 asts in 2013-14). Alexander was a do-it-all type of guard for NDSU last season. A good athlete, Alexander will be the Bison’s best perimeter defender and has the length and explosiveness to give Taylor some trouble on the ball. He also will be a tough matchup as a scorer/playmaker/distributor as he’s tough to guard in traffic and has the size and strength to take contact and finish in the lane. Expect him to be a volume 3-point shooter if he’s on the floor as much as he was last year (which will be interesting to see how Texas combats considering how weak we were at three point defense last season). Alexander is a very good player.

Backcourt play. While Alexander is going to be the main guy this year for the Bison, he’s not alone in what NDSU can throw at opponents with length and scoring ability. Expect North Dakota State to be pretty wing-centric with their lineup as they will attempt to make Texas’ bigs guard out to the perimeter giving chase to a four-guard/wing personnel grouping.

Defensive awareness. While Phillips is gone, Richman is a Phillips disciple and teams can expect that when they play the Bison, they’re going to have to beat NDSU with execution on the offensive end because NDSU won’t be hurting itself. In many ways, it will look somewhat similar to how Texas defends in that they will pressure out to the wings and accentuate recovery and help, but it’s likely that the Bison will switch on most screens as they will have four players who are widely interchangeable in their size/length.

Opponent Weakness:

Rebounding. The Bison will have nice wing length and athleticism, but they are counting on getting a significant clip of their rebounding from their back court. That’s not going to fly against the Longhorns. Texas will need to chase rebounds well as it’s likely that NDSU will be a decently high volume three point shooting team (opening up the possibilities of long rebounds). But, beyond that, the Longhorns should crush NDSU on the glass.

Interior play and overall depth. NDSU partly will be guard-centric because their guards are quite good…but they’ll also be doing so because they have essentially nothing on the interior (when you lose three starters that went 6’7”, 6’7” and 6’8” you’ll have those issues). That Texas can go 11 deep, comfortably, and that the Bison really only have 10 fouls to give on the interior, should mean a big game with rebounding and interior scoring (both for the bigs and Texas’ slashers) is in the works.

Texas Keys: Offense

Half court comfort zone. Texas will score. We’ll score in transition. We’ll score on put backs. We’ll score on runouts from defense to offense. The question is…how comfortable can we get in our half court looks. While I don’t think NDSU is going to be a truly dangerous test for this Longhorn squad, they have only two games to figure things out before heading to NYC to play a top 25 Iowa team and, potentially, a top 25 Stanford team. I don’t expect NDSU to play a ton of zone considering their lack of size inside but some 2-3 looks should be expected.

Having Holmes at the three makes sense for a multitude of reasons (not least of which is that he’s arguably our best player and you need to keep your best player on the floor as much as possible). However, taking away minutes from Felix/Yancy/Croaker will hurt the Horns in that Holmes is not a natural ball handler. Nor is he a player who has shown the ability to break down his defender off the dribble. Not even sometimes. Texas will have to prove to be an unselfish, capable passing team to make up for their lack of potency as penetrators (with the exception of Taylor). If Texas can be in the 1.03 efficiency rating area in half court situations we’ll be fine all year long.

Three point shooting. Texas could be a 36% shooting team from deep all year…they could show game in and game out how capable they are with hitting from long range…they could have three or four players with 40+ 3-point makes on the season…and three point shooting would still be the biggest question for the year. The talent is there. The game plan is there. Now Texas’ perimeter players have to rise with confidence every game and Texas’ stretch fours have to be as good as their talent suggests. The closer the Longhorns can get to double digit makes from three, the better.

Texas Keys: Defense

Defending the perimeter. From 15 feet and in, Texas may well be the best defensive team in the country and teams that want to take the action into the paint will need to do so at their own risk. But that’s a different question than playing as a rotational team without a true wing defender at the three. That’s a problem for Javan and Croaker as well at this point. NDSU, and really likely everybody, will look to stretch the Longhorns defense and draw Turner/Ridley/Ibeh out of their comfort zone by pulling them into difficult situations around the perimeter where, especially in recovery situations, they have to play catch up to the ball. We need to keep NDSU under 12 made 3-pointers to be comfortable. How much zone Texas plays will be an eye opener this early in the season.

Foul trouble. We have the talent, athleticism and sheer numbers to be ultra aggressive on defense (both the guards as they can funnel the action into the paint and the interior players as they look for shot blocks as help defenders). It’s great, but that doesn’t mean we should be comfortable putting people on the free throw line and put ourselves into foul trouble because we can’t play with discipline. Texas needs to create a system where the players can fill spatial responsibilities naturally and without having to take the time to react in their brain first. We need to keep NDSU under 25 free throw attempts to be comfortable.

The Endgame

Last year, when Texas pulled out a close win against Mercer the first game of the season, the feeling was one of happiness. This year, the expectations are different.

Higher? Yes.

More intense? Yes.

Last year, Texas fans wanted some type of belief that Rick Barnes could field a high level, functional team again. Well, he did that…arguably.

This year, Texas fans want to establish a belief that he can build a team that will be fighting for deep NCAA tournament runs. Not just making it. Not just winning a game. But being in the conversation of possible Final Four candidates on a consistent(ish) basis.

Texas should win this game. Probably pretty easily.

However, don’t be surprised if NDSU keeps it close in the first half before Texas’ depth and rebounding numbers keep the Bison from challenging at the end of the game.

Prediction: Texas 74 – NDSU 61

Projected Starting Lineup