No one doubts Texas’ talent. In fact, a strong case can be made that the only team is the nation with a more talented roster is Big 12 rival Kansas.
However, the question is whether Texas can beat quality competition. The Longhorns have raced to the top of the Pomeroy Ratings with a 9-0 record but their strength of schedule ranks just 225th out of the nation’s 347 teams.
Texas will have the chance in the next few days to prove it is indeed a team that should be considered a serious national title contender. The Longhorns play defending national champion North Carolina on Saturday in the first basketball game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. They then host last year’s national runner-up, Michigan State, next Tuesday.
“It’s a big game against North Carolina for us as far as national interest, but in December, there’s not a lot to get excited about except showing improvement,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “Obviously, we want to win games but when we leave that game or the next game, we’ll know if we played up to our potential as a team. These are going to be more physical and much faster games than what we’ve been in. We’ve been in a situation where we’ve been able to overpower people talent-wise but it won’t be the case in these games.
“That being said, I can’t believe there is going to be any game between now and the middle of January in which we’re going to play even close to what we’re eventually going to be.”
Texas leads the nation with a 74.5 adjusted defensive efficiency and its 116.3 adjusted offensive efficiency ranks 17th. However, the Longhorns haven’t beaten a team higher than 58th (Pittsburgh) in the Pomeroy Ratings.
Dexter Pittman, a 6-foot-10, 290-pound senior center, has had his way against the weaker competition. He ranks 15th in the nation in block percentage (12.1), 53rd in offensive rating (128.8) and 55th fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.1). Senior forward Damion James is 21st in defensive rebounding percentage (27.2) and 77th in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.7).
Barnes is curious to see how his bigs play in these next two games.
“It’s not like we’re going to physically going to dominate those guys,” Barnes said. “Carolina is bigger than we are. Michigan State is always a physical team. A lot of balls are going to be batted loose and we’re going to need our guards to get into the rebounding action, too. Blocking out is not going to be good enough. We’ve got to go get the ball and not just one effort but two and three efforts. Both teams pride themselves as rebounding teams on both ends of the floor and that is going to be a challenge for us.”
Texas has one of the nation’s deeper backcourts and freshmen J’Covan Brown and Avery Bradley have quickly made an impact. Brown is 84th in percentage of possessions (29.2) and Bradley is 93rd in turnover rate (9.9). They have helped make up for the loss of sophomore guard Varez Ward to a knee injury, which he suffered during warm-ups prior to the Pitt game on Nov. 24.
Junior point guard Jai Lucas will make his Texas debut Saturday as he becomes eligible after transferring from Florida. He is the son of former NBA point guard and coach John Lucas.
“He’s already played at a high level and he had a very good freshman year at Florida,” Barnes said. “Since he’s been here, he’s improved simply because he’s gone against some big, physical guards. He understands what we’re trying to get done as a team and his personality has been a big kick for us. Even though he’s only been here about a year, he’s a player the older guys look up to, as well as the younger guys. He’s made a big impact on this program and he hasn’t even played a game. We’re ready to put him in there and let him help us.”
Allen Takes Helm at Penn
Jerome Allen was a big winner during his playing career at Penn, leading the Quakers to three straight Ivy League titles from 1993-95 and twice being chosen the league’s Player of the Year award. Now he will try to resurrect his alma mater’s program as the coach.
Allen was promoted from his job as an assistant Monday when Glenn Miller was fired after going 45-52 in three-plus seasons, including 0-7 this season. Allen, who had never coached until this season, appreciates the opportunity.
“I’m excited, nervous, anxious, enthused - all these things at once,” Allen told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I buy into that this doesn’t happen often.”
Sophomore point guard Zach Rosen believes Allen is the man to get Penn turned around.
“Jerome Allen is everything that every Penn basketball player wants to be, live up to (and) uphold,” Rosen said. “He really built this tradition when he was here, and when we look over at him and he's saying something, there's a respect factor and an accountability factor.”
Rarely do Ivy League schools change coaches during the season but Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky felt it was time to make the move before conference play begins next month. The Quakers do not play again Dec. 28 when they visit Davidson, giving them plenty of time to adjust to their new coach.
“This really is about a sense of direction and leadership,” Bilsky said. “Where we were at this point indicated it was time to make a change and this was the best time to do it.”
Johnson Under the Radar for Mississippi State
One of the reasons Mississippi State is off to an 8-2 start is that all five Bulldogs starters are scoring in double figures. Leading the way is junior forward Ravern Johnson, who is averaging 14.3 points a game.
It is easy to forget Johnson on a team that includes shot-blocking maven Jarvis Varnado and the never-ending saga of when the NCAA will declare freshman big man Renardo Sidney eligible. However, Johnson is 16th in the nation in effective field-goal percentage (69.4), 26th in true shooting percentage (69.5) and 82nd in Offensive Rating (126.8).
Johnson got noticed last weekend in Anaheim when he scored a career-high 29 points in a 72-54 victory over UCLA in the Wooden Classic, making 12 of 15 shots from the field, including 5 of 8 from three-point range. Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that they key to Johnson’s success this season is he is developing a better all-round game.
“The biggest thing is ballhandling,” Stansbury said. “He can put the ball on the floor some and get to the rim or he can pass. He could always shoot, but you don't want to be one-dimensional. His driving ability is better, not where it should be, but it’s getting a lot better.”
Freshmen Shining for Hoosiers
Tom Crean continues to try to rebuild the Indiana program in his second season as coach and the Hoosiers are 4-5. However, a bright spot has been the play of freshman forwards Maurice Creek, who leads the team with a 17.3 scoring average, and Christian Watford, who has a 12.6 scoring average and leads the Hoosiers with 6.1 rebounds a game.
Both made an impression on Kentucky coach John Calipari in last Saturday’s 90-73 loss to the Wildcats. Creek scored a game-high 31 points, including five three-point field goals, in 32 minutes. Watford had seven points in 18 minutes before fouling out.
“How about this Creek kid?'” Calipari said. “We've played a lot of good teams and he's as good as any player we've played. That's how you start to build a program. You get guys like him and Christian.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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