Texas Longhorns Focused on Improvements for Conference Opener

Jonathan TurnerCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2008

The #12 Texas Longhorns tip off Big 12 Conference play Saturday on the road against Missouri.

Texas wrapped up its non-conference schedule 13-2, following last weekend's home victory over St. Mary's (CA.) 81-62.

Missouri enters Saturday's contest unranked, with a record of 10-5 after defeating UMKC 96-76 Tuesday night.

The Tigers will be a formidable foe for the Longhorns. They average 82 points and 36 rebounds per game, while holding opponents to 67 points. The Tigers are also undefeated at home so far this season (7-0). One thing Texas has going in its favor is Rick Barnes record of 9-0 as Longhorns' head coach in conference openers. 

 Heading into this weekend's game Coach Barnes is focused on his team playing better transition defense and preventing Missouri from grabbing offensive rebounds. In the Longhorns final three non-conference games against Wisconsin, TCU, and St. Mary's, Texas allowed an average of 14 offensive rebounds, leading to an average of 13 second-chance points.

This was evident in Texas' heartbreaking loss at home last month to Wisconsin. The Badgers' outmanned the Longhorns on the boards, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds and converting them into 17 second-chance points in beating Texas 67-66.

Mental lapses lead to a breakdown in transition defense against TCU, nearly costing the Longhorns a victory. In that game Texas allowed the Horned Frogs too many uncontested three point-attempts. TCU finished the game 12-29 from behind the arc and lost by only eight points.

In last weekend's game against St. Mary's, Texas allowed the Gaels 12 offensive rebounds in the first half which they converted into 12 second-chance points. The Longhorns clamped down on defense in the second half, allowing St. Mary's only two second-chance points and 26 overall. Nonetheless St. Mary's still finished the game with more offensive rebounds than Texas (19-12), and outrebounded the Longhorns overall for the game, by a margin of 41-34.

The bright spot for the Longhorns is these two weaknesses are correctable, due in part to the addition of freshman forward Gary Johnson to the starting lineup. Johnson sat out the first 13 games of the season after being diagnosed with an unspecified heart condition.

The 6'7'' forward made his collegiate debut against TCU, and in two games has averaged 10 points and nearly six rebounds in helping to give the Longhorns a more physical presence in the paint. His addition has allowed Coach Barnes to go with a bigger starting lineup, featuring Johnson, fellow forwards Damion James, and Connor Atchley, with guards D.J. Augustin, and A.J. Abrams.

Guard Justin Mason lost his spot in the starting lineup to Johnson, but his move to the bench has made it stronger, because Mason is one of the team's better defenders and can help slow down the oppenent's transition offense when he's in the game. 

A strong physical presence in the front court and solid transition defense is what the Longhorns need to contend with Kansas and Texas A&M for the Big 12 title. Texas hosts the Jayhawks on February 11th, and begins its annual home-and-home series with the Aggies on January 30th in College Station before playinghost to them on February 18th—but the Longhorns face their first conference challenge Saturday night in Columbia, MO.