Just a few days off of a very tight win on a very big ship, the Gonzaga Bulldogs embark on the toughest stretch of the non-conference schedule, beginning with a true road game against the No. 11 Texas Longhorns on Wednesday evening, at 6:30 pm.
Texas, like pretty much the rest of all the good teams in college basketball so far this season, hasn’t faced the hardest competition to start the year. The Longhorns easily handled UTEP and Houston Christian at home to begin 2-0.
Meet the opponent
Texas Longhorns, 2-0, KenPom #2
The Longhorns feature an interesting mix of upperclassmen experience and some hyper-talented youth. The Longhorns brought in a talented Class of 2022, led by five-star recruits Dillon Mitchell and Arterio Morris. As expected, this early in the season, those two players have played decent minutes and made some fine contributions, but it is the rest of the squad that is carrying the offense right now.
That offense largely focuses on three players: Iowa State transfer Tyrese Hunter and seniors Marcus Carr and Timmy Allen. Hunter leads the squad at 14 points per game and is somewhat effective at attacking the rim. He isn’t not much of an outside threat, pretty much alongside the rest of his teammates so far this season. Through two games, Texas has made just seven three-pointers and is shooting just 19.4 percent from long range, good for No. 353 in the nation.
Largely, the identity of this team is its defense, and that is the main reason why the KenPom ranking is so much loftier than the AP ranking. KenPom has Texas ranked as his top defensive squad—a full point better than the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats. They are not a tall team, but they are an incredibly athletic team. After a tough and gritty effort against Michigan State, Gonzaga will need their offense rolling to get past the Texas defense.
What to watch out for
Can the Zags run?
One of the ways Michigan State built up such a lead, and stuck around for much of the game on Friday, was they limited Gonzaga’s transition opportunities at pretty much all times. The Zags finished with just 14 transition plays (for perspective, they had 28 against North Florida) and scored a measly 0.214 points per possession.
Gonzaga probably won’t miss that many buckets in transition, but they’ll have to figure out a way to run the ball against the Longhorns. Through their two games this season, albeit against overmatched competition, the Texas defense has allowed just nine transition possessions.
How does Texas defend Drew Timme?
Dylan Disu is the tallest member of the Longhorns at 6’9. After that, it is the freshman Mitchell at 6’8. It just keeps getting shorter from down there. Against Michigan State, Drew Timme did Drew Timme things, taking over the game in the second half, dazzling with his footwork, generating fouls, and overall making it a nightmare for the Spartan front court (until they all fouled out).
Mitchell, at just two games into his college career, is exactly the sort of player who would most likely get gobbled up by TImme’s skills in the post. Timme is the focal point of this Gonzaga offense, and it will be up to Texas to figure out how to limit his touches in the paint. As we saw against Michigan State, if the ball is in his hands, there is a better than 50 percent chance he will score. For Texas to win, Timme needs to work as hard as possible for his points, and not have a second half as he did against the Spartans.
What do we get from Nolan Hickman?
Hickman was steady and stable against North Florida. He followed that up with a game on a big boat he would probably like to forget. MSU hassled Hickman into some uncharacteristic turnovers and his three-point attempt with seven seconds left in the first half, which then led to a last-second fastbreak and two points by MSU to close it out, left me banging my head against the wall.
The thing is that Hickman is a second-year player, but he largely played off the ball last season, especially as the year winded down. Last year, Andrew Nembhard was the primary, and sometimes only, ball handler. Hickman is getting a trial by fire and Texas is hardly going to be an easy out. Expect Texas to throw everything they can at him to gum up the offense as early in the shot clock as possible.
Get ready for another grinder.
We have a tale of two tempos, with Texas trying its hardest to slow the tempo down and Gonzaga doing whatever it takes to keep the pace up. The theoretical M.O. against Gonzaga from the past few years has been to play uber-physical because they cannot bounce back from that. We saw against Michigan State, however, that when the going gets tough the Zags can dive into the much with the best of ‘em. It was an ugly win, and at times rather frustrating, but Gonzaga’s win over Michigan State was gritty as all get out.
For both teams, this is a real proper litmus test for early in the season. Texas gets an excellent opponent in Gonzaga and Gonzaga gets a rabid away environment in return. This game will probably be a tight contest. It should also be rather entertaining.