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Texas vs. Minnesota, 7 vs. 10, Barnes vs. Tubby

Texas_mediumSo folks we are within 24 hours of tip off.  The Gophers have finally returned to the NCAA Tournament and are the underdogs to the Texas Longhorns.  Most of America looks at their brackets and quickly write Texas (or Tex or UT) into the second round and move on to the next game.  Do the Gophers have a enough talent to hang with and beat the Longhorns?  Is the tournament magic of Tubby Smith going to come into play and we'll see the Gophers make a mini-run into the Sweet 16?  We will find out soon enought,but the days leading up are all about conjecture and speculation. 

First of all it should be noted that this is not a great Texas team.  The name on the front of their jersey is still Texas but this is not the same club that has made two Elite Eight runs in the last three years.  They are beatable and believe it or not they are not a great offensive team.  Here is where they rank in some offensive stats within the Big 12.

B12 Rank Actual
Scoring Off 8th 72.3
FG % 9th 0.442
3-pnt FG % 12th 0.321
3-pnt FG md 12th 4.61

Those numbers are not exactly record setting.  I point these out because it seems that every surface level preview of this game assumes the offense of Texas will be too great for the Gophers to overcome. But as it turns out the inconsistent Longhorns struggled to score at times, much like your Golden Gophers.  This does not mean they are not capable of scoring and being efficient on offense, they can and if we play the kind of perimeter defense that we played for much of February then his team will hit outside shots and they score more than enough points to win.

But these are just numbers and I'd be lying if I told you that I've spent much time watching the Longhorns this year.  So to get some help I turned to a few bloggers of teams who have beaten Texas this year.  I asked them what does UT look like when they are playing well, what did their teams do to defeat UT, etc.

As it turns out Texas has been rather inconsistent and seem to lacking an offensive identity.  The Boy from Rock M (Missouri blog) summed it up rather well.

Mizzou played Texas before Dogus Balbay took over at point. Balbay is a limited player (he won't shoot the ball unless you hold a gun to his head), but he's VERY fast, and I do think UT's overall performance improved a smidge after he took the reins. In all, UT's biggest problem this year seems to be that they have a bit of an unresolved identity crisis. Big guys like Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson are built for a slow, physical slog (Pittman can be absolutely dominant for small stretches of time...but only small stretches), while guys like Balbay and Damion James are meant for running. AJ Abrams is good in both styles, but he's probably better in an up-tempo game, where it's easier for him to hide from defenses and get an open 3-pointer. They have strong, muscular athletes like Justin Mason and Varez Ward, but they're not necessarily game-changers.

From everything I have read, I thought that was a solid synopsis of what the Longhorns bring to the table.  But how do beat tham?  What slows them down?  That answer came from TB of Bring on the Cats.

K-State plays pressuring man-to-man defense, which was very effective against Texas. The Cats hurried Texas into 20 turnovers on the day, and limited sharpshooter A.J. Abrams to 5-21 field goal shooting. Late in the game, Texas spread the floor and drove the ball hard into the paint with guards Justin Mason and Varez Ward, which forced a lot of fouls and led to a lot of made free throws for Texas.

It's important to note that Texas forward Dexter Pittman played only 15 minutes in the game in January. Pittman is approximately 8'3", 590 pounds, which is actually pretty svelte compared to what he tipped the scales at last season. He was mostly a non-factor in the January game, but killed K-State in the Big 12 Tournament by scoring 19 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in 34 minutes.

In my opinion, the best way to stop Texas is to pack the defense in, collapse around Pittman if/when they get the ball into him in the post, and dare everyone not named A.J. Abrams (and maybe Damion James, if he's hot) to shoot three-pointers. Dogus Balbay, Justin Mason, Varez Ward and the rest of Texas' backcourt are not threats from deep (I'm not sure Balbay can even hit the rim from more than 10 feet away). Pittman is not a particularly good passer when double-teamed, and if you can surprise him with the double, you'll force some turnovers via travels or bad passes.

Of course, that's not the strategy K-State used in the Big 12 Tournament. We stuck with our pressure man-to-man, guarding Balbay and Mason 25 feet from the hoop even though they are no threat to shoot from out there. The philosophy was that if you pressure the guards out front, you make it tougher to make an entry pass to the post, and it actually didn't work too badly (a lot of Pittman's points came off rebounds). You can probably guard Texas with about equal success either way. If the officials call things tight inside, it'll play to your advantage because Pittman likes to use his massive frame to lean on and shove other players around down in the paint. If they call it loose, good luck, because he'll maul your players.

Pressure defense huh?  I think we know a thing or two about that.  Josh from Corn Nation said some similar things.

We used our man-to-man press to force them into bad shots (Nebraska just doesn't give up easy shots most of the time), and forced turnovers. We also got Pittman into foul trouble, which helped when he got hot in the second half. No one else really got going for them (at least not consistently enough to put any distance between Texas and NU when Nebraska had their trademarked 8-minute scoring drought).

So even a team that plays pressure D but really struggles offensively can beat the Longhorns.

So what is it going to take to beat Texas?  Here are what I think will be the keys to a Gopher win.

  1. Pressure the ball.  Especially AJ Abrams.  It sounds like Balby at point is quicky but not a threat to score.  I still like the notion of pressuring him enough to distrupt his vision but not so much that he's able to penetrate and dish at will.  Pressing may be the most effective pressure we can apply.  When we have pressed this year it usually has led to some easy offense.  So applying some defensive heat to force some turnovers and to make things more difficult entering the ball into the post.
  2. Pittman.  I'm not sure what the key is but I'm sure he is one of them.  The dude is a load and as mentioned by Rock M he can dominate in stretches.  He does get into foul trouble so that may be the key.  It will be very interesting to see how Iverson and Sampson handle the physical specimen that is Mr. Pittman.
  3. We have to find some offense.  Is the fact that we are not playing a Big Ten defense going to be enough to give our offense some breathing room? This sub 20% shooting from behind the arc has got to stop.  The only teams that win shooting three point percentage like that are the ones who have a real strong identity elsewhere (we do not have said identity).  I imagine we will try to establish some offense in the post early and often.  But eventually Hoffarber, Joseph and Westbrook will get open looks and they have GOT to knock some of them down.  

Can the Gophers win?  Absolutely but they will need to get back to what they resembled in December and realy most of January.  Preasure defense from a great press that generates turnovers and an offense that is capable of hitting the open shot.  Can we return to that form?  Yes, it will have to if we want to win this game or win any subsequent game.

What is the best part of all this?  We are back in the tourney!  Enjoy the game, enjoy the tourney and lets take down the Horns.