The Texas and UConn basketball teams squared off in a highly touted matchup this past Saturday afternoon. UConn came in as a team that had started the season unranked, picked up two big wins in early games against Michigan State and Kentucky to leap into the top 10, and had more recently dropped back slightly with losses to Big East rivals Pitt and Notre Dame. In contrast, Texas began the season in the top 25, gave up their own loss to Pitt and a subsequent loss to USC, but then hit a hot streak to win six straight, including games against UNC and Michigan State. Texas could also lay claim to an impressive win over Illinois early in the season.
Anyone who is following college basketball this season has heard about Kemba Walker, the country’s leading scorer. Walker got hot early in the season and has not really dropped off the pace at all, so a primary challenge for Texas was to figure out how to best neutralize Walker, who came in averaging over 26 points per game. For Texas’ part, Jordan Hamilton has risen as the team’s star, if such a label is appropriate to use, but they have a more balanced scoring attack. While Hamilton is certainly a top player, he is not the exclusive focus of the team. He is effective without overshadowing the rest of the team. With Michigan State dropping like a rock, thus taking away from the significance of the victories over MSU for both UConn and Texas, this game promised to shed some light on the true strength of these two teams.
The Longhorn defense seemed to accomplish the task of containing Walker very well in the first half, as Walker went scoreless until just 2:30 remained in the first half. However, at the 10-minute mark the Huskies actually had a one-point lead, the result of poor shooting from both sides and overall balanced scoring by the UConn big men. The sloppy play and brick-laying clearly worked more to UConn’s advantage, as they could hope to keep it close until Walker got things going. Unfortunately for UConn, by the time Walker’s drought ended and the game was nearing halftime, Texas had found its rhythm and opened up an eight-point lead. Before the half concluded UConn had closed the gap to five.
It took overtime to get there, but in the end UConn was able to pick up a huge road win in this contest. In the second half Walker managed to find his spots and finished by leading all scorers with 22 points, a real testament to his dynamite scoring ability, and he further established his reputation as a clutch player by hitting the game-winning shot. Hamilton and teammate J’Covan Brown each finished with 20 for the Longhorns.
While Walker’s shot-making was in the highlights after the game, the more significant performance for me came from Husky big man Alex Oriakhi, who finished with 21 rebounds along with 11 points. Walker is the featured player, but his scoring ability would be negated if it weren’t for the ability of the UConn big men to crash the glass and wreak havoc on the defensive end. UConn’s personnel lends itself to an up-tempo, scrappy style, where Walker and the other guards penetrate and dish while Oriakhi and his cohorts clean things up. UConn has recruited a string of lean, athletic big men in recent years, and their defensive presence makes it very hard for teams to get points in the paint.
Texas is a significantly different team. Because they rely on a number of players for scoring, I think they will actually have the better opportunity to make a run in the tournament. Texas plays well together as a team and can both run the break and settle into offensive sets. They have both outside shooting and inside scoring. If UConn plays and wins ugly, then you could say that Texas plays and wins pretty (in a good way).
When considering Ohio State’s chances against these two teams, UConn seems to be the more difficult matchup. Certainly Walker would always be a threat to get his points, even if we were to give David Lighty the assignment of locking him down, but I think the Husky interior players are the more troublesome factor. Oriakhi is the type of player who can truly shut down the paint if he sets his mind to it, and he’s got just enough of a touch around the basket to bank a few home at exactly the wrong time if you’re the opponent.
Again, I think Texas is going to be the more consistent team over the course of the season and will be the better pick to go far when you’re filling out your bracket, but they scare me less when comparing them to the Buckeyes. Their starting point guard, Dogus Balbay, is not a scoring threat (think of Doug Gottlieb when he played for Oklahoma State), and their big men, while skilled, do not have the same physical presence as other top teams like Kansas and Syracuse.
As conference play progresses, it’s fair to say that UConn has the harder road to tread, with future contests against the likes of Villanova, Syracuse, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. The Big 12 will be no cake walk for Texas, but they should be able to overcome most of their conference opponents with more ease than the Huskies will experience, especially as a team like Kansas State continues to drop. The effect of all this is that we may see Texas with the higher seed in the tournament, which will obviously aid them in their attempt at a run through post-season play.