Who: Texas Longhorns (2-2)
When: Friday, November 27th, at 7:00 p.m. ET (AXS TV - Click for Listing)
Where: Imperial Arena -- Paradise Island, Bahamas
Spread: Vegas: -2 | KenPom: W, 71-70 (53% WP)
Michigan sits at 3-2. Its three wins all have been by at least 20 points against opponents that are outside the KenPom Top 200 or a Division II program. Its two losses each have been by double digits to top-25 teams. Simply, the Wolverines haven't competed well against top-25 teams, but they have taken care of inferior competition as if they are one. It's been difficult to get a firm grasp on where this Michigan team stands at the moment.
However, the Wolverines will give fans a clearer picture on Friday night when they take on Texas, who is No. 44 on KenPom, in the fifth-place game of the Battle 4 Atlantis. While the loss to No. 18 UConn on Wednesday was a disappointment, the result of tonight's contest will determine whether Michigan's trip to the Bahamas was a successful one or not. If the Wolverines win, they will fly back to Ann Arbor with a 2-1 record and a victory over a top-50 team this week. If the Wolverines lose, well, it wouldn't be good.
Texas is 2-2 in its first season under Shaka Smart -- the former VCU head coach that made a name for himself after his HAVOC defense led the Rams on a magical run to the Final Four in 2011. The Longhorns split their two games against Washington (No. 102 on KenPom) -- falling in the season opener, 77-71, before wounding the Huskies, 82-70, yesterday -- beat Texas A&M Corpus Christi (No. 231) at home, and lost to in-state rival Texas A&M (No. 19) by 11 in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Texas is expected to be a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team. Most media outlets picked the Longhorns to finish fifth or sixth in the 10-team conference with an early NCAA Tournament exit.
Offensively, Texas has rebounded from an atrocious performance in its first bout with Washington, in which Texas made only 19-of-71 field goals (26.7 pct.) and posted a 28.2 eFG%, but the Longhorns are not a team that will make their first shot often. They have connected on only 39 percent of their twos (322nd) and 32.9 percent of their threes (181st) for a 42.1 eFG% (311th). To score points, the Longhorns crash the glass hard (20th in OR%) and draw lots and lots of fouls. In fact, no team in the nation gets a larger share of its points from the free-throw line than Texas. However, though Texas has the third-best free-throw rate (62.5 FTA / 100 FGA) and has averaged 39.5 free-throw attempts in its two games in the Bahamas, they are shooting only 65.3 percent from the line (249th).
Defensively, it doesn't appear that Smart fully has installed his HAVOC pressure system just yet given that Texas is only 190th in adjusted tempo. This could be because he wants to tweak his defensive philosophy now that he's coaching in a high-major conference. It also could be because he inherited a Texas team that had the second-worst defensive turnover rate in the nation last season. However, even if their steal rate is low (205th), the Longhorns have been much better at forcing turnovers this season (71st). Also, when opponents have held onto the ball, they have struggled to score their twos (39.5 pct.). But where Texas' strengths lie on offense is where its weaknesses are on defense. The Longhorns are 340th in defensive rebounding rate, which could be attributed to facing an excellent rebounding team in Washington twice, and 234th in defensive free-throw rate.
Though Shaka Smart's HAVOC system isn't fully operational, he still will rotate numerous players into the game to keep his players fresh as Texas brings the pressure. Through four games, none of which have been blowouts, Texas has nine players that have averaged at least 14.5 MPG but none that have averaged more than 30.0 MPG.
The Longhorn that has received the most minutes is 6-foot-3 junior point guard Isaiah Taylor, who was Texas' leading scorer last season (13.1 PPG) and is on pace to be it again this season (14.8 PPG). However, Taylor isn't a shooter whatsoever. He rarely puts up threes and has made only 40.3 percent of his twos in his career. His offensive repertoire consists of driving into the paint and either trying to get to the line (88.6 FTR) where he's a 77.8-percent career free-throw shooter or dishing it to an open teammate (32.6 ast%).
At shooting guard, Texas likely will start 5-foot-11 senior Javan Felix, but don't be surprised if 6-foot-2 freshman Eric Davis, who was No. 51 in the 2015 class and is from Saginaw, Michigan, sees more playing time. Due to his small stature, Felix is a poor finisher inside the arc, but he has become a threat from downtown the past two seasons. He knocked down 39.2 percent of his threes last year and has come out firing this season (7-of-10 3FG). Defensively, in the past, Felix has had little impact, but he has ripped six steals in four games in Smart's system. Davis has had a strong showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, averaging 17 PPG in the two contests. He seems capable of scoring from all over.
The starting small forward will be 6-foot-3 senior Demarcus Holland, who provides little value on the offensive end. He's averaged only 4.3 PPG this season, missing more than half of his twos and all six of his threes. Holland did drain 46.4 percent of his triples last season, but, given that he's a 30.8-percent shooter from downtown in his career, my guess is that last season was an anomaly. There is nothing else that stands out about Holland either. He's not even an average rebounder, his turnover rate more than doubles his assist rate, and he doesn't produce many steals. It's a wonder that Holland starts. Maybe he's a terrific defender, and that doesn't show up in the box score. I don't know.
Texas will have two 6-foot-10 bigs down low. The power forward is senior Connor Lammert, and the center is senior Cameron Ridley. Lammert is a stretch-four, but he's much better around the rim (76 pct. last season) than from mid-range and beyond. The one area that Lammert likes from outside is the right wing, where he drilled 46 percent of his threes last season. From anywhere else, though, defenses will let him fire away. At 290 pounds, Ridley is the behemoth in the paint, which is the only place from where he is a threat to score. Because of his girth, Ridley, who is Texas' second-leading scorer with 11.8 PPG, is able to muscle his way to the rim for easy deuces (69.2 2P%) and the free-throw line (92.3 FTR). Also, Lammert and Ridley are the two Longhorns that will do the majority of the rebounding on both ends of the floor along with 6-foot-8 junior reserve Shaquille Cleare and be excellent rim protectors. But both are a bit too aggressive on the defensive end, and each have picked up at least four fouls in three games this season.
In addition to Davis and Cleare, there are two other bench players that will see significant time, and both are freshmen. The first is 6-foot-4 point guard Kerwin Roach, who was No. 46 in the 2015 class. Roach has had a rough start to his collegiate career. He hasn't shot the ball well, making only six of his first 21 shots, and he has 11 turnovers to just four assists. The one area where Roach has helped, though, is on the defensive glass. The second is 6-foot-6 wing Tevin Mack, who was No. 58 in the 2015 class. Unbelievably, Mack has had an even worse start to his career. He's missed all 14 of his twos (!!) and 12 of his 14 threes. That's 2-for-28 (7.1 pct.). Ouch. He can hit free throws, though (87.5 pct.).
Box Out Ridley and Lammert: This is the entire game for Michigan. Texas misses lots of shots, but Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert are like vacuums down low. They snag a bunch of offensive rebounds, which leads to easy put-backs or trips to the free-throw line. If Michigan can keep them off the glass, the Longhorns will have a difficult time scoring tonight. Of course, the Wolverines' defensive rebounding woes are well-documented, and Xavier, who's 23rd in offensive rebounding rate, crushed them on the boards last week. Texas is even better on the glass, and that's a scary proposition for Michigan, who needs a sturdy Ricky Doyle to keep Ridley away from the rim somehow.
Sag Off Taylor: Point guard Isaiah Taylor will consume most of Texas' offensive possessions, and he loves to drive into the lane. Loves it. Though he doesn't finish around the rim much, he induces the officials to blow their whistles often and finds open teammates. However, what Taylor doesn't love to do is shoot threes. So Michigan needs to sag off of him and tempt him to jack up some long shots. If he does, great. If he doesn't, Michigan's perimeter defenders should be in position to contain his penetration.
Take Care of the Ball: Texas' pressure defense won't be as hectic as Shaka Smart's was at VCU, but the Longhorns have improved greatly at forcing turnovers this season under him. It has become one of the strengths of their defense. Fortunately, John Beilein's Michigan teams are superb at holding onto the ball, which has been Smart's kryptonite.
A Secondary Scorer Steps Up: Caris LeVert can't do it all. In Michigan's two games against teams with a pulse -- both of which had solid and lengthy two-point defenses -- LeVert averaged 25.0 PPG with a ridiculous 66.1 eFG%. The rest of the Wolverines: 40.0 PPG on a horrid 36.9 eFG%. The length of these defenses bothered Michigan's offensive flow, which led to lots of standing around and deferring to LeVert. While LeVert has been spectacular, the Wolverines need players to step up in these big games. That means Derrick Walton being more assertive, Zak Irvin knocking down jumpers, which he finally did against Charlotte, or Duncan Robinson hitting catch-and-shoot threes. This must happen vs. Texas, which has a strong two-point defense anchored by Cameron Ridley.
Attack Ridley on Offense: Cameron Ridley fouls a lot. If Michigan can get him into foul trouble early and keep him on the bench, their chances to win will shoot straight up.
This one's close. I always like John Beilein's teams against pressure defenses like Shaka Smart's. We saw how the Wolverines shredded Smart's HAVOC defense in the NCAA Tournament three seasons ago, and I expect that Michigan will do something similar tonight, though this team doesn't have Trey Burke anymore. On the other hand, can any of Michigan's centers box out Cameron Ridley and limit his touches? Nothing we have seen from them this season has suggested that's the case, and it looks like Ridley could be in store for an 18-point, 12-rebound, three-block effort. But I have an inkling that one of Michigan's centers -- I'll say Ricky Doyle -- will come up in a big way on defense tonight.
Michigan 75, Texas 67