Between now and the beginning of conference action in Big 12 men’s basketball, HeartlandCollegeSports.com contributor Matthew Postins will watch at least one game for each Big 12 team and assess where each team stands in the final weeks before league action. Today it’s the Texas Longhorns.
The conundrum from the arc
In major college basketball shooting the 3-pointer efficiently is key. During the Purdue game there was plenty of talk about Texas’ recent inability to do that. Well, part of the reason the Longhorns were able to pull off that win over Purdue was their 3-point shooting — 11-of-25, or 44 percent from the floor. But for the season, as of Dec. 17, the Longhorns have not been that good from the arc, just 32.9 percent. Now, the Longhorns’ 3-point defense is darned good — 32 percent. But in the Big 12 the Longhorns are seventh in 3-point shooting percentage. As of Dec. 17 the Longhorns had attempted more 3’s than any other Big 12 team. That percentage needs to take an uptick before Big 12 play begins. Perhaps the win over Purdue gave them a boost.
It’s time to commit to Jaxson Hayes
Perhaps that’s the plan once Big 12 play arrives — start Hayes in place of Jericho Sims. But after watching that Purdue game, to me, it’s clear the offense has more life with the athletic freshman in the middle. Against the Boilermakers Hayes played 26 minutes, scored 14 points but only grabbed 2 rebounds. That rebounding total is a little disappointing for a 6-foot-11 forward. But the starter in front of him, Sims, had no points and a rebound in 14 minutes. I expected to see a more assertive Sims this season after he finished last year with a bit of a flourish. But season totals of 7.0 points and 4.8 rebounds show me that he hasn’t made much progress as they’re only slightly better than his season averages last year. His play didn’t pass the eye test, either. Hayes is averaging 10.2 points and 5.0 rebounds off the bench, playing about the same amount of minutes per game as Sims. It’s time to let the true freshman take his place in the starting lineup. He plays above the rim better than any Longhorn. He’ll need to work on being a more assertive rebounder and defender. But with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he has some Mo Bamba-like qualities, though he’s not as developed as Bamba was at this point last season.
This freshman class has some swagger
Besides Hayes head coach Shaka Smart is certainly giving his talented group of freshman some significant playing time in non-conference. At one point early in the game against Purdue three of them were on the floor at the same time with guard Kerwin Roach II. Hayes, of course, had a great game. Guard Courtney Ramey and forward Kamaka Hepa had their moments, too. Ramey played 18 minutes and while he only scored 3 points he also had 3 assists. Hepa had 5 points and 3 rebounds in 23 minutes. Ramey has had the better overall season to this point, averaging 5.7 points with 31 assists, the latter third-best on the team despite only playing 17.9 minutes per game. Kepa, meanwhile, is averaging 2.2 points per game but showed his range from the arc with a made three in the second half. The trio has played in every game, and while Hayes has grown into a budding star, Ramey has the ability to play both guard positions and Hepa gives the Longhorns good forward depth as a nine-man rotation. The good news is that, historically, freshmen show a propensity for improvement when you get into January and February basketball. If both of them grow, especially defensively, Smart has some considerable options to work with.
An Andrew Jones update
Jones, the guard who battled leukemia earlier this year and won, was on the bench for the Purdue game. On the stat sheet he’s played just two games this year, with 11 minutes and 3 total points. And it doesn’t sound like there is playing time in his immediate future, as he’s returned to MD Anderson in Houston for a planned maintenance treatment. It’s unclear when he might see more of the floor. But, of course, his playing time is irrelevant as he continues to make sure his treatment plan is on course.
Time to improve the rebounding defense
One area the Longhorns need to improve upon is their rebounding defense, which is tied for eighth in the Big 12 right now as opponents are averaging 36.7 rebounds per game. The Purdue game was a good example of what happens when you win that battle. Texas outrebounded the Boilermakers, 32-29. Additionally, the Longhorns also shot better than usual from the floor, nearly 49 percent (Texas is shooting 43 percent for the season). Combine winning the rebounding battle with better shooting and you have a formula to improve in that category going into Big 12 action.
Texas has had some head-scratching losses (Radford and VCU) and some really nice wins (North Carolina and Purdue). I think some of that is emblematic of the fact that Smart is giving his younger players a lot of time on the floor before they hit Big 12 action. He’s doing it for a couple of reasons. First, they need the PT. Second, he needs to determine who his eight or nine rotation players will be. Right now these Longhorns have four players averaging double-digits (Roach, Hayes, Dylan Osetkowski and Matt Coleman III) and an interesting set of bench players who had a really good night against the Boilermakers. Texas’ hopes in the Big 12 hinge on their ability to get more efficient shooting the ball. Because, based on this game, the Longhorns have everything else they need to be competitive night in and night out in the Big 12.
And, yes, I know Texas gave up 40 points to Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. But, you know what? Great players gonna play, you know?
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