For the last several seasons, the annual match-up between Big 12 powers Kansas Jayhawks and Texas Longhorns has produced some of the best college basketball of the year. Based solely on the close final outcomes and elite individual talents on each side, one could argue this is the most underrated rivalry in all NCAA sports.
When the 11th ranked Longhorns travel to Lawrence to take on second ranked Kansas on Saturday, another exciting chapter of this epic series is sure to be written.
Both squads come into the weekend with 3-0 records in league play, and each is coming off impressive road victories against respected Big 12 foes. The winner of Saturday's game will stake their claim as the best team in the conference, and gain a leg up as the grueling league schedule continues into February.
Though its never smart to bet against Kansas at home, if any team will break KU's 69 game home-winning streak, its the Longhorns. Shutting down Texas' prolific wing scorer and pair of talented freshman will be huge in determining the game's outcome. If UT gets a couple big individual performances, don't be shocked if this game comes down to the wire.
Following are player breakdowns and match-up analysis for the Kansas Jayhawks' game on Saturday against the Texas Longhorns.
UT's Jordan Hamilton poses a tough matchup for the Jayhawks.
Senior Dogus Balbay starts for the Longhorns, though he gets the playing time of a bench player, averaging only 16.8 minutes per contest. That's in large due to his limited offensive game. Balbay is a poor outside shooter, and rarely takes shots outside the painted area. He's also a liability at the foul line, where he connects on just 54% of his attempts. A product of Turkey, Balbay is basically on the floor as a defensive specialist, and a good one he is. He's long for a 6'1'' player, moves his feet well and is adept at keeping his man in front of him. If the Kansas backcourt struggles offensively, it will likely be in large part to the ability of Balbay to frustrate the Jayhawks' primary ballhandler.
A highly touted recruit, freshman Cory Joseph has lived up to the hype early in the year for the Longhorns. He leads Texas in minutes per game, scores 11.2 points a night and does a solid job running the show for coach Rick Barnes. Joseph is an adept deep shooter, as evidenced by his sterling 42% mark from beyond the arc. However, he's equally good at getting to the rim and making plays for himself or others, where his long 6'3'' frame greatly plays to his advantage. One of the best and most consistent – if relatively unknown – first year players in the nation, Joseph will be instrumental in determining whether or not Texas can weather a hostile Allen Fieldhouse crowd and lead his team to a surprise win.
After a rough freshman campaign, swingman Jordan Hamilton is living up to his lofty recruiting ranking as a sophomore by leading UT in scoring at 19.7 points per contest. At 6'7'' and thickly built, Hamilton has prototypical size for an NBA wing. He combines that with deep, deep range on his jumper, routinely connecting on multiple three pointers a night. Though he's not an explosive athlete, Hamilton uses his size to get closer to the basket and rise over defenders for easy shots from mid range. He doesn't get to the paint a lot via the dribble, but will mix it up down low, as evidenced by his average of 7.1 rebounds per game. Defensively, Hamilton is nothing to write home about, though his reach can bother opposing shooters on close outs. If Texas is to win in Lawrence and break the nearly decade-long trend of the home team winning in this series, coach Barnes will need a big performance out of Hamilton. If the first months of the season are any indication, he just may be up to the challenge.
To cover Balbay, Kansas coach Bill Self will likely use his worst perimeter defender. When the starting lineups are on the floor, that means freshman Josh Selby may get the assignment. He's certainly no slouch on that end, but is KU's least experienced player and means a lot to the Jayhawks on the other end of the floor. Based on play in games, this makes the most sense. However, don't be surprised if Selby gets a shot on Joseph due to his great athleticism. Elijah Johnson will get some time guarding Balbay when in the game, as well.
Tyshawn Taylor will undoubtedly begin on Joseph, where his length, quickness and activity could bother the freshman. Self has been asking for more out of Taylor on this end of the floor recently, and Saturday will be a great opportunity for the junior to prove his worth by shutting down UT's best playmaker.
Similar to UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt, Kansas doesn't have a starter ideally suited to cover Hamilton. However, senior Tyrel Reed did a fantastic job against Baylor's 6'10'' Anthony Jones earlier in the week, and will likely draw the starting assignment. Denying Hamilton the ball will be key for Reed, as he is giving up nearly five inches to UT's top scorer. His experience, energy level and underrated strength will be instrumental in keeping Hamilton in check early. Brady Morningstar has been used to defend opposing wings with size in the past, and will likely get a lot minutes bothering Hamilton. He, like Reed, gives up lots of size, but will try to compensate with activity, quickness and fundamentals. Travis Releford may be KU's best defender and is the most natural foil for Hamilton at 6'5'', but has been injured. If he plays and is in the guard rotation, he could prove influential in slowing down Hamilton.
Freshman Tristan Thompson is one of the nation's best youngsters.
How freshman Tristan Thompson has flown under the radar nationally is anyone's guess. Aside from Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, there may not be a better first-year big man in the country. Another highly touted high-schooler, Thompson is arguably UT's best all around player. He averages 13.1 points per game on a stellar 53.8% mark from the field, and pulls down 7.7 rebounds a night. Additionally, he collects over two blocks per game and throws in a steal for good measure. At 6'8'', 225 pounds, Thompson has good size and combines it with elite fluidity. Few in the college game with his build move as effortlessly as he does. Thompson uses that to his advantage defensively, as he is a fantastic pick and roll defender, as well as a stout one-on-one post stopper. Offensively, he gets a lot of his buckets off true back-to-the-basket moves, and authoritative finishes around the cup. If Thompson has an achilles heel, its his propensity to get in foul trouble and his poor free throw shooting. Playing against KU's Morris brothers will be the freshman's toughest task of the season. If Texas wants to spring the upset, its imperative that Thompson plays above his years.
Senior Gary Johnson is undoubtedly a familiar face to Jayhawk fans, as he's been a fixture of the Texas rotation since the 2007-2008 season. This year, though, he's taken his game to a new level. Johnson averages a solid 12.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and has shown an aggression offensively not seen in previous seasons. He is his team's most consistent performer on both ends of the floor, and is capable of playing and guarding multiple positions at 6'6'' and a burly 238 pounds. Like Thompson, he's an adept pick and roll defender, though is stout in post defense as well. Not the flashiest player, Johnson is Texas' leader, and a strong performance from him will be huge in determining the game's outcome.
The bigger and stronger of the brothers, Markieff Morris should start out on Thompson. Don't be surprised if Texas goes down low to the freshman early, hoping to goad the foul-prone Morris into early time on the bench. When Thomas Robinson is in the game, he'll undoubtedly draw Thompson, and provide strength and energy that will potentially limit the young Longhorn's success.
Marcus Morris will start out on Johnson, and he is a perfect foil to Texas' senior leader. Marcus has the size and athletic ability to play him tight on the perimeter, and size to bang with him in the post. Depending on KU's rotation Saturday, Mario Little is another player who is a good match-up for Johnson. Utility man Travis Releford, hopefully back from his injury, will also check the undersized Johnson if playing on the interior for Kansas.
Texas' J'Covan Brown is a talented bench player.
If any team comes close to matching the quality depth of the Jayhawks, its Texas. Coach Barnes plays nine Longhorns double-digit minutes, and gets consistent production from his bench on a game-to-game basis.
Sophomore guard J'Covan Brown leads the way, and actually plays more minutes – 21.2 per game – than starter Dogus Balbay. Brown has great natural gifts, capable of playing both on and off the ball, scoring in bunches and contributing a handful of assists and rebounds in a given game. His shot selected can be erratic, but if on target Brown is the second most explosive UT scorer. Quite simply, Brown is one of the best bench players in the Big 12.
PG Jai Lucas comes off the bench for 15 minutes a game and initiates the Texas offense. He's very undersized and a middling shooter, but is pesky on defense and distributes the ball well to UT's litany of scorers.
Big men Alexis Wangmene and Matt Hill are the Longhorns' reserve post players, and neither offers much in the way of offense. However, the former is a gifted athlete and the latter has ideal size. Both are good rebounders and can finish easy plays, but the Jayhawks need not worry about either of these players hurting them too much.
The match-up between Elijah Johnson and Brown is sure to be a fun one, as both are promising young players and very good athletes. Johnson has struggled keeping his man in front of him recently, and Brown could pose problems for him in that regard. Any of the Jayhawks' other perimeter players could get the opportunity to check Brown, as well.
Lucas is pint-sized but very quick. He'll be Texas' primary ballhandler when in the game, but shouldn't pose much of a threat offensively to KU's stable of guards.
Thomas Robinson should thrive against either Wangmene or Hill, and could make a major impact on the game when Texas' starters go to the bench.