Texas basketball is set to host one of the more monumental games for this program of the last decade as the No. 2 ranked Longhorns welcome the No. 7 ranked Creighton Blue Jays into the Moody Center.
The Blue Jays (6-1) are coming off of a week in Maui where they knocked off Texas Tech and Arkansas before playing Arizona down to the last possession in the Maui Invitational Championship. Having not played in eight days, Coach Greg McDermott’s squad will be well-rested for their first true road game of the year.
The Horns are coming off of two non-competitive victories in the Leon Black Classic, besting Northern Arizona 73-48 on Nov. 21. and UTRGV 91-54 this past Saturday. Texas passed their one true test of the season, a decisive 93-74 victory over the then No. 2 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Coach Beard’s squad is looking to replicate that result against Gonzaga on Thursday night against a very talented and experienced Creighton team.
How Texas basketball beats Creighton on Thursday night
1. Run Creighton off of the three-point line
McDermott has seemingly always coached teams that rely on the triple, and this year’s Creighton team is no different. The Blue Jays are attempting nearly 25 threes per game, knocking down over nine for a team percentage of 38.2. This currently ranks 47th nationally and, if kept up for an entire season, would likely put the Blue Jays top ten nationally in three-point shooting percentage.
The tricky part of defending the three-point arc against Creighton is that nearly every player on their roster takes (and makes) triples. Eight of their nine rotational players average at least one three-point attempt per game. Five of those eight players are knocking down at least 42 percent of their shots.
To put that into perspective, the Longhorns’ best statistical shooter, Tyrese Hunter, is converting on 39.1 percent of his three-point attempts.
Creighton can and will hurt you from deep; it’s about making those shots as tough as possible. Luckily for Coach Beard, the Horns have been fantastic at guarding the arc through five games.
Texas has allowed opponents to make just 22-of-their-85 three-point attempts this season. That 25.9 percent hit rate currently ranks 22nd nationally and, if kept up over an entire season, is a number that would have ranked first nationally every season since 2000.
Look for the Blue Jays to grab rebounds and run with guys like Ryan Nembhard and Baylor Scheierman leading the charge. These two are adept at finding shooters in transition and pulling up themselves, often from 30+ feet.
2. Don’t allow Ryan Kalkbrenner paint touches
Creighton’s junior big man, Ryan Kalkbrenner‘s performance on Thursday night will go a long way in deciding the outcome of this game. Not only was he last year’s Big East Defensive Player of the Year, but the 7-footer has turned himself into one of the most effective low-post scorers in college basketball.
Through seven games this season, Kalkbrenner is averaging 16.1 points while knocking down exactly 80 percent of his two-point attempts. Sure, the big man has a feathery touch and can stretch the defense, but his two-point field goal percentage is historically high because of how he positions himself.
The 7-footer is adept at sprinting the floor and sealing off his defender, essentially turning an in-game possession into the Michan drill. It is essential that Dylan Disu and Christian Bishop sprint the floor after every Texas offensive possession and front any potential Kalkbrenner early shot clock touch.
Once Creighton gets into the flow of its offense, I am intrigued to see how Coach Beard matches up with the Blue Jays big man.
Against Gonzaga, the Longhorns waited until Timme put one foot into the paint and immediately double-teamed him. Although Timme finished with 18 points, Texas was able to somewhat contain him with this strategy.
I expect the same game plan to be implemented on Thursday night against Kalkbrenner. Although he is not the same high-level passer as Timme, Kalkbrenner will still find open shooters if double teams are not timed correctly.
Most importantly, however, Disu and Bishop must force Kalkbrenner’s touches out to eight or ten feet. If he gets his hands on the ball in the lane, it will be a bucket nearly every time.
3. Get to the free throw line
My third and final key to this game may be the most important; Texas must get to the free throw line.
Although the Horns’ free throw numbers have been nothing special this season (82nd in attempts, 267th in percentage), getting to the line Thursday night becomes crucial for two main reasons.
Free throws are an easy way to manufacture offense when your team goes into a rut. We have not seen many offensive struggles from Texas this season, but as someone who has watched Beard’s teams for many seasons, I know they will come. At some point, and likely at a very inopportune time, Texas will go cold from the field.
At that point, the Longhorns must stay aggressive and avoid significant swings in Creighton’s direction. They can do this by slowing the game down and getting to the line.
The Blue Jays are a high-functioning offensive team; if Texas wants to keep pace, they must get as many easy points as possible.
The second and more important reason to get to the line is to potentially get some Creighton players in foul trouble.
As discussed on the Hook’Em Horns YouTube Show, the Blue Jays have one of the best starting fives in the country with little bench help behind it. In all three games in Maui, Coach McDermott ran out the starters for 30+ minutes each.
Their starting five-man rotation plays as well as any five-man group in the country. Breaking up this unit by getting one (or multiple) player(s) in foul trouble should pay significant dividends for Texas.