To this point in the young 2010-11 college basketball season, the Texas Longhorns have shown some flashes of brilliance. At other times they have looked like the team that struggled through the Big 12 slate last year, barely skidding in to the NCAA tournament after beginning the season as the country's top-ranked team.
The next three weeks of the Longhorns' schedule are a test of where the team stands. Texas faces three quality opponents between today and January 8th, each of which bring different matchup issues which could potentially expose the team's weaknesses, but also allow Rick Barnes and his staff to determine what types of lineup combinations will be successful during the Big 12 season against comparable opponents.
Texas faces the North Carolina Tarheels, Michigan State Spartans and Connecticut Huskies in this upcoming stretch. Let's take a look at each of these matchups and how each can be a learning experience for the young Texas team.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Today's contest against North Carolina kicks off the tough non-conference stretch remaining for Texas. North Carolina has been carried along through the first part of the season by talented freshman forward Harrison Barnes, rangy sophomore center John Henson and emerging center Tyler Zeller.
Who is Texas' Toughest Opponent?
North Carolina enters today's contest unranked but capable of knocking off the top teams in the country on any given day due to their depth and variety of talent. The Tar Heels' size-laden squad will give the Texas big guys their first true test of the season inside the paint.
How Tristan Thompson, Gary Johnson and the other Longhorn big guys perform against North Carolina in today's game in Greensboro could be an early preview of the success the team will have against other big teams in the Big 12, most notably Kansas and Kansas State.
Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans and Longhorns have had a couple of epic battles over the past few seasons. Michigan State outlasted Texas 67-63 at the Toyota Center in Houston in 2008, with Texas getting their revenge by knocking off the Spartans 79-68 in the second game of the series last season.
Michigan State is currently 7-3 and ranked #14 in the AP Top 25, led in scoring by Kalin Lucas and rebounding by larger-than-life forward Draymond Green. Lucas has given the Longhorns fits in the previous two games and Green's size will be likely to do the same.
Cory Joseph and Jai Lucas will be counted on by coach Rick Barnes to play more substantial minutes during the Big 12 season, and having the opportunity to play a first-tier guard like Lucas should be a preview for the two guards of what they will see during January and February.
Green and fellow forward Durrell Summers will be another test for the Longhorns big guys and a preview of Big 12 wide-bodies like the Morris twins at Kansas.
The Huskies have been one of the biggest surprises of the early 2010-11 college basketball season and will definitely give Barnes a good idea of where his team stands as the last non-conference opponent Texas will face in 2011.
Connecticut is led by electrifying All-American point guard Kemba Walker, who has shown an ability to take control of games with his speed, ball-handling skill and overall leadership ability.
If the Longhorn guards, especially defensive stopper Dogus Balbay, can keep Walker in check it could be an encouraging sign. While there are great guards in the Big 12, none has the overall talent and dominating ability of Walker.
Needless to say the eyes of Texas basketball fans are firmly on Barnes and his team. Expectations are always high in Austin for this squad, and this year is definitely no different.
Will the 2010-11 Longhorns be a team that will make some noise in March and be mentioned in the first tier of the college basketball elite? Or will this team hit the wall again and stumble into post-season play?
Either way, the next few weeks will likely be a preview of what is to come for the team.