Basketball

Hoyas present first major test for Sims, UT frontcourt

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Texas entered the 2019-20 season with uncertainty surrounding the frontcourt. When the Longhorns battle Georgetown this Thursday at Madison Square Garden in the 2K Empire Classic, they’ll face the challenge of a skilled big man under the tutelage of Hoyas legend Patrick Ewing.

Hoyas senior center Omer Yurtseven averages 17 points and 12.5 rebounds per game through the first four games. The 7-footer leads the country in offensive rebounds with 25, a problem for Shaka Smart’s team currently ranked No. 238 in rebounding margin and No. 258 in defensive rebounds per game.

In addition, Yurtseven hits 57 percent of his shots, the best mark on a team Smart described Monday as having phenomenal length and versatility. Smart is familiar with Yurtseven and mentioned he recruited the North Carolina State transfer out of Turkey. He knows Yurtseven is a great early season challenge for junior Jericho Sims and the rest of the Longhorn bigs.

“Is our frontcourt ready?” Smart asked Monday. “It’s going to be a heck of a test.”

According to Smart, Sims’ start to this season is the best of his three-year career. The 6 foot 8 inch forward averages 8.3 ppg and 7.3 rpg, almost double his 2018-19 averages. He’s also shooting 65 percent from the field.

Smart praised Sims’ increased confidence, growth, and sturdiness as factors benefitting the soft-spoken junior as he prepares for his toughest individual test.

“I think the biggest thing with Jericho is he’s playing with a better motor and more violence, which is something we’ve tried to emphasize in him,” Smart said. “The way that he’s making aggressive plays, whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s cutting to the basket, certain finishes, I think is a really good sign.”

Yurtseven might draw much of Texas’ attention, but he’s not the only playmaker for Georgetown. Sophomores James Akinjo and Mac McClung average double figures in scoring through their first four games and are two of the perimeter players Smart said “make that team go.”

In order to limit the production of the Hoyas’ three leading scorers, Smart knows his team can’t continually throw shots up from behind the three-point line if they aren’t hitting them at a consistent rate.

The only time this season Texas shot 30 percent or better from behind the arc was at Purdue when the Longhorns connected on 41 percent of their three-point attempts. In the remaining three games, Texas shot 26, 25, and 28 percent from deep. They have three halves in which they made under a quarter of their three point attempts.

Should Texas struggle from deep, Smart wants his team to work the ball inside, creating better shots for his team and fewer opportunities for the Hoyas.

“If you miss three, four, five, six in a row, it becomes ‘hey, we need to get the ball in the paint,’” Smart said. “The rhythm of the game is such that the other team can seize on some momentum if you miss a bunch of shots in a row.”

Texas returns to Madison Square Garden for the first time since cutting down the nets following the 2019 NIT Championship. For Smart, it’s a big deal to play in The World’s Most Famous Arena against a quality non-conference opponent in the 2K Empire Classic.

“It’s a great opportunity for our team to play against a terrific program in Georgetown, and to play in the Garden which is as good of a venue as there is,” Smart said.

Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday on ESPN2.