Come Jan. 18, the Cats will host quite possibly the best team in the nation.
Despite how well we're playing now, we'll still have to step our game up to a new level -- and possibly the best game we will play all season -- to defeat the Texas Longhorns.
To scout the team that I think has the best chance to beat us in Bramlage, hit the jump. For more information, visit Burnt Orange Nation -- assuming, of course, that you can drag them away from BCS National Championship talk.
The Story So Far
Texas is 11-0 and sailed into Christmas after dominating wins over both of last year's title game participants -- Michigan State and North Carolina.
In fact, Texas apparently is so good that the loss in Cowboys Stadium did not affect North Carolina's ranking at all. How's that for respect?
Additionally, early wins over Western Carolina and USC didn't appear too impressive at the time, but since then, WCU whooped Louisville at Louisville and USC dominated Tennessee in Los Angeles. Both teams look like they could contend for their conference championships, which just makes Texas look even better.
Yes, it seems all but certain that the Kansas at Texas game in Austin this February will decide the No. 1 seed in Kansas City -- unless, that is, K-State has something to say about it.
Current Texas RPI: 5
281-105 (129-47) at Texas
- A.J. Abrams (37.7 minutes per game | 16.6 points per game | 2.2 rebounds per game)
- Connor Atchley (18.2 minutes per game | 4.6 points per game | 3.1 rebounds per game)
- Harrison Smith (7.2 minutes per game | 1.9 points per game | 1.6 rebounds per game)
#1 Gary Johnson
17.4 minutes per game | 6.4 points per game | 3.8 rebounds per game
#4 Dogus Balbay
23.1 minutes per game | 4.6 points per game | 3.9 rebounds per game
#5 Damion James
27.7 minutes per game | 17 points per game | 10.8 rebounds per game
#20 Alexis Wangmene
11.1 minutes per game | 3.5 points per game | 2.6 rebound per game
#21 Matt Hill
4.5 minutes per game | 1 point per game | 1.1 rebounds per game
#24 Justin Mason
16.5 minutes per game | 2.4 points per game | 2.1 rebounds per game
#34 Dexter Pittman
18.9 minutes per game | 13.6 points per game | 6.5 rebounds per game
#50 Varez Ward
23* minutes per game | 6.7* points per game | 3* rebounds per game
*Ward played in three games before being lost for the season with a leg injury.
#53 Clint Chapman
5.8 minutes per game | 2.6 points per game | 2.4 rebounds per game
#0 Avery Bradley
24.9 minutes per game | 11.6 points per game | 1.5 rebounds per game
#2 Shawn Williams
5.6 minutes per game | 1.6 points per game | 1.7 rebounds per game
#10 Jai Lucas
9* minutes per game | 2.5* points per game | 0.5* rebound per game
*Lucas did not become eligible to play until the North Carolina game.
#22 Andrew Dick
3 minutes per game | 1.7 points per game | 0.7 rebound per game
#23 Jordan Hamilton
19.2 minutes per game | 10.2 points per game | 4 rebounds per game
#25 Dean Melchionni
4 minutes per game | 0 points per game | 1 rebound per game
#50* J'Covan Brown
23.6 minutes per game | 12.5 points per game | 2.8 rebounds per game
*Brown switched to this number in honor of Ward, after he was injured.
My thanks to the Texas sports information department for the photos.
More than any team I have seen in a long time, Texas took a long, hard look at the flaws of last year's 9-7 team in the offseason -- and fixed all of them.
The Longhorns suffered from point guard play, so they added Jai Lucas and J'Covan Brown -- which in turn forced Dogus Balbay to step up his game.
Their defense failed them on several occasions -- most notably against an out-of-his-mind Denis Clemente -- so they rededicated themselves to shutting down opponents and becoming a more physical, defensive team.
They were overly dependent on streaky shooter A.J. Abrams, so they found some freshman sharpshooters to replace him. Not only did they find a new guy to average double figures, they found three. Simply astounding.
They needed Dexter Pittman to be the sort of inside force who could challenge Cole Aldrich, and Rick Barnes found the right combination of physical exercise and mental motivation to push Sexy Dex's buttons and raise his game to a new level.
And they needed Damion James to keep doing what he was doing, but he still found ways to improve -- and now he virtually can do everything.
Add it all together and you get the most impressive team in the nation, at this point in the season.
Texas' frontcourt almost is unassailable. Losing Connor Atchley was an improvement. In addition to the slimmed-down Pittman and the do-everything James, the Horns bring a player off the bench who rivals Jamar Samuels in terms of total impact. Gary Johnson can score, rebound and defend with the best of them, and if you saw him in that Michigan State game, he basically ignited Texas' decisive run single-handedly with his stellar play.
Meanwhile, Alexis Wangmene is giving the Longhorns more in his minutes than he did last year. The net effect of the bench duo's play is that Clint Chapman, who I thought was in the verge of a Darren Kent-like breakout, largely has been relegated to a tertiary role, along with Matt Hill. Those guys could start for many teams in the Big 12, but at Texas, they're pretty much afterthoughts. Yikes.
As far as guard depth is concerned, all you need to know is that the loss of Varez Ward, while emotionally disheartening, barely registered on the Longhorn's radar regarding the distribution of minutes. How many other teams can shrug off the loss of a starter and not suffer because of it?
Although Brown adopted Ward's number in honor of his fallen teammate and can play the point some, he's stronger as an off-guard. The person who rose up to fill the void was Balbay. Although he still is a liability shooting the ball in any situation and teams regularly play five feet off the guy, he's doing all the other things the Longhorns need.
Balbay rebounds and distributes the ball well, and his defense of Kalin Lucas on Tuesday was nothing short of smothering.
Like Balbay, Justin Mason serves as an underrated glue guy who, while not as gifted a scorer as Brown, is a potent rebounder and defender, and as one of three seniors on the team, he provides invaluable leadership, as well.
The jury still is out on Jai Lucas. He became eligible just in time for Texas' two hardest games of the young season, and as a result, didn't have much opportunity to make an impact. His experience from starting as a freshman at Florida is substantial, and he has all the athletic ability you could want and an excellent pedigree, but as long as Balbay keeps playing at this level, Lucas will be no more than a change-of-pace guy at the point position.
Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton have completely redefined the wing position for the Horns. Not since Kevin Durant has Barnes had a player, let alone two, who can score from all points on the floor as effortlessly as these two. Bradley is on track for potential first-team All-Big 12 honors, and if you want to know why UCLA sucks this year, look no further than the Bruins' failure to keep Hamilton in-state.
Due to Texas' bevy of upperclassmen, don't look for Andrew Dick, Dean Melchionni or Shawn Williams to have much impact as freshmen. They're there mostly for depth's sake, but the future looks solid at Texas.
Projected Big 12 Starting Lineup
|Dogus Balbay||Justin Mason||Avery Bradley||Damion James||Dexter Pittman|
Projected Top Big 12 Reserves
|Jai Lucas||J'Covan Brown||Jordan Hamilton||Gary Johnson||Alexis Wangmene|
The Final Verdict
Clearly, I'm high on the Longhorns. When your biggest problem is figuring out a way to shorten your bench, you're going to have a good season.
Texas has all the potential in the world, but dethroning Kansas as the king of this conference is about more than the players. There's a mental block that has to be overcome. Luckily for the Horns, the Jayhawks have to visit Austin in February -- a crucial battle that could serve as the tiebreaker between first and second place.
While I think the Cats are near-unbeatable in Bramlage, if I had to point to one game I think is extremely tough to win there, it's Big Monday against the burnt orange. Seems like we always beat each other on the road and fail to defend the home court, at least since Huggins arrived. I see no reason for that to change this year or the next.
Big 12 preseason prediction: 2nd
My predicted finish: T-1st (with Kansas)
Best-case scenario: National champion
Against K-State?: Win in Manhattan