Monday, December 17, 2007

The Holiday Season

The Holiday season means some much needed time off from work or a break after a long semester. In the sports world, it means a slow down of epic proportion, as meaningless bowl games begin, the NBA has yet to start mattering, college basketball teams schedule as many cupcakes as possible before conference play starts, and you sit around waiting for Sunday's NFL docket of games.

On first glance the Longhorns appeared to have followed suit. The football team awaits for their titanic struggle, that I can't seem to get myself excited for, against Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl and the basketball team looked to be in cruise control after wins against North Texas, Rice, and Texas State, the most recent in the least impressive fashion. But that is where the #5 Longhorns holiday ends, as the rest of their holiday schedule is a treat for fans.

A rundown of the Longhorns holiday docket reveals 4 strong opponents out of 5 in the remaining games before conference play.

12/18 vs. Oral Roberts (6-3)
- Yes, a team of dentists is coming to town. However, these aren't your everyday dentists. A 23-win team in 2006 that made the NCAA tournament as a #14 seed that returned all five starters for 2007. And in today's Cinderella world, a #14 seed means you can play some ball. Their three losses this season come on the road against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (06 tournament team) by 5, #15 Texas A&M by 14, and Arkansas by 11. While it should be a game that the Horns should win, you have to look at the things that make this difficult. This is a good team, it's hard to get yourself excited for Oral Roberts, since I'm going with zero Longhorn players and a few fans that know that Oral Roberts is in Oklahoma (I had to look it up to make sure), and last, this Longhorns team might be looking ahead to a road tilt against #10 Michigan State a mere 4 days later.

Oral Roberts has a balanced attack led by junior SG Robert Jarvis, creator of the artificial heart, (and you thought they were just dentists) who is averaging 16.8 ppg. They also have some size inside with junior PF Marcus Lewis (6-8/245) averaging 11.2 ppg/4.2 rpg and senior C Shawn King (6-10/220) averaging 10.4 ppg/6.7 rpg. The Longhorns will have to play much better than they did against Texas State if they hope to prevail. You know, actually try. But this has all the makings of an upset.

12/22 at #10 Michigan State (9-1)
- This is not the team that lost to Grand Valley State in their exhibition. This is a team that plays some of the most physical basketball in the country boasting wins at Missouri by 3, at Bradley by 5, and at #22 BYU by 7. Their only loss comes on a neutral court against #1 UCLA by 5. This will be another hard road test for the Longhorns, and Michigan State may be a tougher place to play than UCLA. Michigan State's grinding, physical style of play will be a real test for a Longhorn team that isn't strong inside and isn't deep at all.

The Spartans boast arguably the best point guard in the country in Drew Neitzel. Since the Longhorns boast the other candidate in DJ Augustin, this will be a matchup to watch. Neitzel has become a true leader, floor general, and lights out shooter in his senior season, averaging 14.6 ppg and 4.7 apg. However, he might not be the most important player to his team. Sophomore swing man Raymar Morgan (6'7) averages 16.8 ppg and 7.6 rpg and is the most athletic player for Michigan State. He will be a defensive test and will be guarded by Damion James and Justin Mason. The other defensive test will be Goran Suton (8.8 ppg/8.7 rpg) who will pound Connor Atchley and the bench forwards inside all game long. Michigan State will go at the Longhorns and attack them inside and try to get them in foul trouble. This game will be a slugfest and should be a preview of how several teams will attack the Longhorns in conference play this season.

12/29 - vs. Wisconsin (8-2)
- The Longhorns continue their Big Ten Conference Challenge a week later at home against the Wisconsin Badgers, another team that will test the Longhorns physically. Led by 6'11 senior Brian Butch (13.3 ppg/7.9 rpg) and sophomore point guard Trevon Hughes out of Queens, NY (15.2 ppg/4.3 rpg/ 3.0 apg). The rest of their team is made of experienced talent in senior guard Michael Flowers (9.1 ppg/4.0 rpg) and junior forwards 6'7, 230 Marcus Landry (9.7 ppg/4.9 rpg) and 6'7 Joe Krabbenhoft (7.3 ppg/5.8 rpg). With Wisconsin teams, you know you're getting physical, disciplined teams that play skilled basketball. They will play slow and make you grind it out.

They have impressive wins against Georgia (by 19) and Colorado (by 26) with a tough loss against #15 Marquette (by 5). They also fell apart at #7 Duke by 24 earlier this season. But Wisconsin is an experienced team that is going to test our depth and try to dominate on the glass. They will struggle with Texas' athleticism, but they will try and dictate the pace of the game to counter act that. Foul trouble could also be a factor in this game.

1/2 vs. TCU (5-3)
- TCU is the easiest opponent of this stretch, but hey, you've at least heard of them. With their losses coming against Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and SMU, they're not terrible, but certainly not of the same caliber of the previous three opponents. They pretty much have three players who are of threat in junior shooting guard Henry Salter (13.9 ppg/5.6 rpg), senior guard Brent Hackett (12.6 ppg), and junior forward Kevin Langford (12.4 ppg/5.6 rpg). TCU shouldn't be too tough a game, but if Texas comes out flat and looks past TCU, this could be a game all the way down to the end.

1/5 vs. #24 St. Mary's (7-1)
- A team that went 17-15 a year ago has turned it around with youth. The emergence of sophomore center, 6'11 Omar Samhan (13.1 ppg/7.6 rpg) and freshman sensation Australian National point guard Patrick Mills (15.5 ppg/4.4 apg) have led St. Mary's to a #24 ranking and a favorite in the West Coast Conference. They have wins against #11 Oregon (by 12) and Seton Hall (by 15) this season, and their only loss comes on the road against Southern Illinois (by 15).

The Gaels have been sparked this season by the play of Mills who is a scoring threat from three point range and a threat to get to the basket. Inside the Gaels are led by the play of Samhan and junior forward Diamon Simpson (12.6 ppg/8.9 rpg). The Gaels are a team that is physical inside and carries the gritty nature of their point guard. They will try to outwork the Longhorns and will be confident coming into this game. But the longer the are able to play with the Horns, the more they will believe they can pull off the upset, and the more dangerous they will become. It is another trap game for the Horns against a team that is extremely capable.

#5 Texas Longhorns (10-0)
- The Horns, only 10 games into the season have figured out their rotation, and offensively, look as good as any team in the country. Led by DJ Augustin (19.5 ppg/6.8 apg) and AJ Abrams (19.2 ppg) the Horns will score. Damion James (11.8 ppg/10.0 rpg) and Connor Atchley (12.6 ppg/5.7 rpg) are relied upon to give this team their inside presence offensively and defensively. Justin Mason (10.2 ppg/3.6 rpg/3.4 apg) has emerged as the defensive stopper and glue guy for this lineup. Depth is the one question mark for this team as the Horns only use three bench players, all in the front court. Freshman forwards Alexis Wangmene (14 mpg) and Clint Chapman (10 mpg), and sophomore Dexter Pittman (7 mpg) are the only ones that are seeing any time off the bench, and it is limited. They have proved capable while in the game.

It will be interesting to see if highly touted freshman forward Gary Johnson (13 pts, 6 reb, 2 blks in 19 min in exhibition game) will make any kind of impact on the rotation when he returns, which is rumored to be soon, and could be during the 5 game holiday stretch. I think the impact he could have on the Longhorns would be huge for the rest of the season, giving the Longhorns a dynamic offensive post threat. But it took Mike Williams a long time to recover from missing the non-conference season his freshman year, and it hampered his development throughout his Longhorn career. Hopefully, Johnson will not run into the same problems if, and when he returns.

This five game stretch will test the Longhorns depth and interior and will determine if the Longhorns have an Achilles heel that teams will be trying to exploit the rest of the season. I don't think the Longhorns will come out of this test 5-0, as Michigan State appears to be the most obvious pitfall, but 2 or 3 losses in the next five is not out of the question, but going 4-1, I would deem a success.

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