The promising freshman big man, the one with the NBA future and impressive stat line and McDonald’s All-American pedigree, is still not a starter.
The promising big man comes off the bench, a consensus top-10 recruit playing fewer than 23 minutes per game on a ranked team in the nation’s deepest conference. He is his team’s most dangerous shot-blocker, its longest inside presence, but he is still not starting. At least not yet.
For the moment, the freshman big man plays behind a cast of veterans, including one forward averaging fewer than six points per game.
Does this sound familiar? This could be Kansas freshman forward Cliff Alexander, of course, but it is not. This is Texas freshman forward Myles Turner, a 7-footer who leads the Longhorns in scoring (11.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.8 boards per contest).
Turner, a native of Bedford, Texas, picked Texas over Kansas last spring after a highly publicized recruitment, donning a burnt orange bucket hat inside his high school gymnasium. His decision, which left Kansas without a classic five-man and added to a collection of emerging talent in Austin, appeared to throw the Big 12’s power structure into question. Perhaps Texas, with its five returning starters and massive frontline, would finally be the team to snuff out Kansas’ streak of 10 straight Big 12 titles.
“They’re big,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
“They’re huge,” Kansas sophomore Wayne Selden added.
So far, though, the Texas-as-Kansas-slayer narrative hasn’t exactly played out perfectly here in Austin. Despite some solid performances from Turner, the 17th-ranked Longhorns are just 14-4 and 3-2 in the Big 12 as No. 11 Kansas arrives for a 1 p.m. matchup on Saturday at the Erwin Center. Still, there is all that size, which perhaps positions Texas as a matchup nightmare for the smallish Kansas frontline.
Loaded with a frontcourt that also features 6-foot-9, 285-pound center Cameron Ridley; 6-foot-9 forward Connor Lammert; 6-foot-10 center Prince Ibeh and 6-foot-8 small forward Jonathan Holmes, the Longhorns have the nation’s most imposing roster in the non-Kentucky division.
“We definitely are going to have to rebound,” Kansas junior forward Perry Ellis said. “It’s the key for that game with their length.”
For now, the Longhorns rank second in the country in blocks (7.7 per game) and first in defensive rebounds (29.3 per contest). And their interior defense has been a force. The Longhorns have limited opposing teams to just 36.4 percent shooting inside the three-point line, which is one reason they rank seventh nationally in defensive efficiency. The Jayhawks, of course, have struggled against teams that can protect the rim and seal off the paint on defense. Especially away from Allen Fieldhouse. Exhibit A: Last season, Texas blocked 12 shots while dismantling Kansas 81-69 in Austin. Exhibit B: Earlier this season, No. 1 Kentucky throttled Kansas 72-40 by blocking 11 shots and erasing any offensive opportunities around the basket.
Self prefers his teams to pound the ball inside and beat teams into submission with easy baskets. On Saturday, the Jayhawks could use a solid performance from Alexander, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds in Monday’s victory over Oklahoma. But standing inside Allen Fieldhouse on Thursday afternoon, Self said Kansas would need to play with more pace and more ball movement to combat the Longhorns’ size advantage.
“Our 5-foot guys tried to shoot over a lot of 7-foot guys the last time we played Kentucky,” Self said. “I think we need to challenge them, but we don’t need to fade away from contact. We did that way too much the first time we played Kentucky.”
Unlike last season, the Jayhawks are better positioned this year to neutralize Texas’ post defense with some efficient three-point shooting. After making 10 of 19 from behind the arc against Oklahoma, Kansas is now shooting 39.7 percent from three-point range, which ranks 19th in the country. In addition, Texas coach Rick Barnes is again utilizing a zone defense on a large percentage of possessions, and Self expects to see plenty of zone on Saturday.
“We got to score inside,” Self said. “But on the flip-side, we can play inside-out.”
In Self terms, this means reversing the ball and attacking Texas on the “second and third side” of the court. If the ball sticks — if the Jayhawks’ offense is too stagnant and slow — that could spell trouble against Texas’ length.
Self, though, has never been one to rage against his natural coaching instincts. If Kansas is hoping to pick up a crucial road victory — and maintain at least a share of first place in the Big 12 — the Jayhawks will need to hold their own against Texas in the paint.
“I feel like if we go down there and compete like we have been, I feel like everything will go well,” Ellis said. “The key with us is just the energy.”