Two weeks before Baylor football gets its shot at North Carolina, another Big 12 team will try its hand at upending the Tar Heels on the hardwood as Texas plays host to North Carolina on Saturday.
After managing a low 11-seed despite being expected to be at least a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament, Texas parted ways with longtime coach Rick Barnes last season. In stepped Shaka Smart to jumpstart the struggling program, even with plenty of talent on board. Austin seemed like a great landing spot for the lauded mid-major coach, who made VCU into a destination school.
If he could create “HAVOC” with the Rams, what’s stopping a Longhorn from having the same success?
Turns out his aggressive man defense is better suited for the smaller, quicker squad he had while in Virginia, though. Mascot allegory aside, the Longhorns have really struggled to adjust to this new system.
Speaking of, the ‘Horns are quite the underdog against No.3 UNC this Saturday, but we’ve already seen the Tar Heels get stuck in the mud before, having lost the Northern Iowa earlier this season. While that shows the impact that Marcus Paige has on his former top-ranked team, there is a glimmer of hope that Texas can’t reignite the fire that was sparked upon hiring Smart.
Texas has had UNC’s number in recent years, winning the last two meetings under similar circumstances (UNC has only won once in their seven-game series since 2004). Their last meeting together was the first big game then-freshman guard Isaiah Taylor showed his worth for Texas, and he’s raised his game slightly since. He’ll need to repeat that showcase and make the big jump in production as expected heading into this contest to provide more consistency than the Horns have displayed this season, though.
According to Team Rankings, Texas has been one of the most volatile teams this season, ranking among the 25 least consistent teams in the nation.
After coming close to knocking down Michigan, Texas followed up with an overtime win over the much less daunting Texas-Arlington. Against Texas-San Antonio, though, the Longhorns had one of their best games of recent memory (regardless of the weak competition) with a 56-point victory thanks to efficient bench play.
At the least, what was essentially a high school A versus B team scrimmage, showed the potential the Longhorns have to attack the rim.
Led by 6-9 center Cameron Ridley’s nine rebounds (and three blocks) per game, Texas has the ability to out-rebound opponents as it often did last season with a powerful frontcourt. But as games like the loss against a rebound intolerant team like Michigan showed, the Longhorns are just as prone to be beat around the rim.
Again, it comes down to consistency.
It’s a Jekyll and Hyde situation, as Ridley in combination with junior forward Connor Lammert have the ability to win the rebound battle. Ridley has even gone toe-to-toe with the nation’s best offensive rebounder in Baylor’s Rico Gathers in past seasons, but both Ridley and Lammert have disappeared against top-tier competition like in the Michigan game, combining for just 11 boards.
But as shown in UNC’s loss to Northern Iowa—in which leading big man, forward Brice Johnson, was held to just six boards—win that battle and suddenly the Tar Heels are cut down to size.
It’s a tough assignment, but it will be essential in order to help keep the possession in favor of Texas, and out of playmakers like Paige’s hands.
No doubt, this is a David versus Goliath scenario, and that says something about Texas right now. But a win for the ‘Horns would certainly put more faith into Smart’s system as we inch closer to the Big 12’s ultra-competitive conference play.