9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Kansas -15, Over/Under: 129.5
Big XII Rivals meet at one of the true, classic venues in the sport, as the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks play host to the struggling Texas Longhorns from Allen fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. Disappointment has dominated the discussion in regards to Texas (14-7, 4-4 in Big XII), who at 4-4 within the Big XII find themselves in a veritable No Man’s Land, and (barring a whirlwind showing in their conference tournament) are likely staring at their second consecutive season without an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, and third in four years. Indeed, pressure has been mounting on Shaka Smart for some time now, with the Head Coach’s position within the program likely hanging in the balance pending on how his charges finish in 2020; since arriving in Austin back in 2015, Smart has never managed to recapture the success that he enjoyed in his time at Virginia Commonwealth, in which he guided the program to a 163-56 (.744) record in six seasons, notable for their shocking trip to the Final Four in 2011. However, in his five years with the Longhorns he’s only guided them to the Big Dance on two occasions, and even with that said, they’ve failed to advance past the First Round in either instance. Simply put, this is not what the school expected when they hired him to replace his predecessor, Rick Barnes, who in comparison enjoyed a very successful run at Texas, going 402-180 (.691) in seventeen years, including sixteen trips to the NCAA Tournament, Three Big XII Championships, and a trip to the Final Four in 2003. Smart, on the other hand, is just 83-73 during his reign with the program, translating to a Win Percentage of .538. With the facilities and financial resources at their disposal, Texas should be doing much better than they have in recent years, where they’ve really struggled within league play, mustering a mediocre 35-45 record in that time (.438), including three straight sub-Top-5 finishes. But enough about resumes, how are the Longhorns doing in 2019-2020, you ask? Well, the faithful in Austin are hoping that the worst is indeed behind them; Texas began Big XII Play losing four of their first six outings by an average of 18.0 Points, with an embarrassing 59-97 loss at West Virginia serving as their nadir. Smart’s troops put together a far more spirited performance against LSU in the Big XII-SEC Challenge, narrowly falling in defeat 67-69, and have since managed to build some momentum for themselves with back-to-back victories, including a 62-61 win on the road at Texas-Christian and most recently a 72-68 triumph at home over Iowa State. As has been the case throughout the term, this one wasn’t easy for the hosts, folks, as they trailed by as many as eight points in the Second Half, as a late flurry put them ahead with just over a minute remaining. Sophomore Guard, Courtney Ramey (10.5 PTS, 42.4% FG, 32.2% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.2 AST, 13.4 PER), took charge scoring all but two of the ‘Horns’ final ten points, capped by a clutch three-pointer to take the lead with 1:06 left to play. Ramey finished with Fourteen Points on 5-of-11 shooting (45.5%), along with Jericho Sims (9.8 PTS, 65.7% FG, 8.0 REB, 1.3 BLK, 22.5 PER) and Matt Coleman (12.3 PTS, 44.9% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.5 STL, 17.3 PER), who matched his point total with the former adding Nine Rebounds, a Steal, and a Block, while the latter chipped in with Four Assists and Three Steals, not to mention a pair of late Free-Throws to seal the deal. The home side were also happy to see Freshman Forward, Donovan Williams (3.1 PTS, 42.0% FG, 27.6% 3FG, 1.0 REB, 11.0 PER), show up in a major way, matching his season-high Thirteen Points in just eleven minutes of action, drilling 3-of-5 attempts from downtown (60.0%). It was vital for Texas to earn two hard-fought victories against two of the weaker sides in the league for the road ahead is rather arduous; after tonight’s affair at Allen Fieldhouse, they will host last year’s National Runner-Up, Texas Tech, and Baylor, who currently sit atop the AP Poll. When these sides met earlier in the season, the Longhorns were absolutely throttled in the Second Half where they were outscored 40-26. The aforementioned Sims was the only member of their number to enjoy much success, scoring a career-high Twenty Points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field, with the rest of the team struggling on a dreadful 14-of-57 shooting (24.6%). In his tenure with the school, Smart has only managed to best Jayhawks once, going 1-11 against the Big XII Powerhouse.
Meanwhile, as their opponent attempts to drag themselves out of mediocrity, Kansas (18-3, 7-1 in Big XII) is on a mission to regain that which had been theirs for so many years: the Big XII Championship. After a remarkable fourteen years of owning at a least a share of the league title, the Jayhawks saw their vice grip on the conference dissolve in 2018-2019, as they finished Third in the Big XII, the first time since 2002 that they failed to claim that particular trophy. Last season’s roster was beset by injuries and suspensions before eventually crashing out of the NCAA Tournament far earlier than they’re accustomed to, eliminated by eventual Final Four-bound Auburn in the Second Round (75-89). This season, Bill Self’s charges have been hardened by some early adversity; the program was basically put on notice by the NCAA who have accused them of a litany of infractions, while losing the much-maligned Silvio De Sousa (2.6 PTS, 47.1% FG, 2.8 REB, 14.7 PER) for twelve games following an ugly room at Kansas State. With that said, this group is deeper and more experienced than they were a year ago, thanks in large part to the healthy return of Senior Center, Udoka Azubuike (12.4 PTS, 76.0% FG, 9.4 REB, 1.0 AST, 2.5 BLK, 28.3 PER), who after missing all but nine games last season due to a torn ligament in his Right Hand, has been the dominant anchor on both ends of the floor that he was expected to be. The massive Nigerian has averaged 12.5 Points per Game on 76.0% shooting, along with 9.4 Rebounds, 1.0 Assist, and 2.5 Blocks, with that last figure ranking Second within the league. His presence has made it extremely difficult for opponents to gain any traction in the Paint, where they’ve managed to shoot just 39.9% from the field (1st in Big XII), which has in turn allowed his teammates to play more aggressively on the perimeter, permitting 30.4% shooting from beyond the arc (5th in Big XII). With that said, he wasn’t much of a factor when we last saw the Jayhawks, who narrowly defeated the team that unseated them as Big XII Champions, Texas Tech. Indeed, the hosts very nearly squandered a nine-point lead at Halftime holding onto an eventual 78-75 victory. With Azubuike sidelined for long stretches due to foul trouble (he only played Sixteen Minutes), it was the return of Sophomore Forward, David McCormack (7.4 PTS, 55.6% FG, 4.7 REB, 23.4 PER), who had missed the previous two contests due to a suspension earned from his participation in that aforementioned brawl that spilled into the crowd against instate rivals. Though he only totaled Six Points, he filled in admirably for the big fella, posting Six Rebounds, Two Assists, and Three Blocks, making a series of key plays as the visitors pulled closer and closer. Sophomore Guard, Devon Dotson (18.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 28.6% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.3 AST, 2.2 STL, 25.7 PER), led the way with Twenty-One Points on 9-of-16 shooting (56.3%), along with Six Rebounds, Three Assists, and Three Steals, while Junior Guard, Marcus Garrett (9.6 PTS, 46.6% FG, 29.4% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.5 STL, 17.8 PER), added another Fifteen Points on 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%), Five Rebounds, Three Assists, a Steal, and Three Blocks. Even without the services of Azubuike for much of the affair, Kansas found success often when in possession, shooting 51.7% overall, including 57.8% from within the arc. Now we’ll see what they have in store for the Longhorns in this rematch of 66-57 affair just over two weeks ago. On that night, the Jayhawks trailed 26-31 at Halftime, only to bombard the Longhorns over the duration of the final twenty minutes of play. In this case, Azubuike was very much a force to be reckoned with, posting totals of Seventeen Points (much of which came early in the Second Half), Nine Rebounds, and a Block in thirty-five minutes, locked in a pitched battle with the aforementioned Sims. Dotson again led the team with Twenty-One Points on 6-of-16 shooting (37.5%), along with Six Rebounds, Three Assists, a Steal and a Block apiece. The visitors ended the game on a 12-3 run, thanks in large part to their dominance on the glass (40-28), and their prowess at the Charity Stripe (14-of-21), where they owned a nine-point advantage. However, as they have all season, they struggled mightily to knock down open Three-Pointers, netting just 2-of-10 (20.0%) on the night. This season, Self’s troops are only shooting 35.1% from beyond the arc (97th Overall), averaging a mere 6.8 Trey’s per Game (243rd Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been relegated to four or fewer Threes on ten occasions thus far, including five times in Big XII Play.