Pregame: Texas MBB takes on Northern Arizona in Edinburg, TX

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Tonight, the Longhorns take on Northern Arizona in Edinburg, Texas as part of the Leon Black Classic. Coming in hot off of a thrashing of the second-ranked team in the nation in Gonzaga, 93-74, Texas looks to continue its early-season dominance after posting three straight double-digit victories to start their campaign.

Ranked first overall in KenPom, Texas has been an analytics darling so far, and has arguably the most impressive win of the season of any team in the country after their dismantling of the Zags. This will be posted before the new AP Poll drops, but I figure Texas will be in the top five after losses from Gonzaga, Kentucky, Baylor, and UCLA.

Northern Arizona is 2-3 on the year. They started the season with three straight Ls:

• Lost to Michigan State, 73-55

• Lost to Arizona State, 84-68

• Lost to Utah Valley, 73-69

But they won their last two games;

• Won against Benedictine College AZ, 105-49

• Won against UCSB, 63-54

The Lumberjacks have struggled over the past few seasons. This most recent year, they finished last in their conference at 5-15 in the Big Sky and 9-23 overall. They dealt with COVID outbreaks and other factors that played into their inconsistencies. Although they do return their entire starting five from last season, it’s going to be tough sledding for them against a vicious Texas defense that will prevent dribble penetration and make inside shots difficult – they had problems inside the arc last season, specifically at the rim. They finished 325th in the country in two-point field-goal percentage at just 46%.

This season, they’ve been better at 48.1%, but this still ranks them 265th. They’re shooting 32% from deep, which has them 219th overall. So, on the whole, they just have issues putting the ball in the basket. This shouldn’t be any easier today for them, as Texas forces an average of 20 turnovers per game on top of just allowing 54 points per.

Here’s NAU’s starting lineup.

Jalen Cone is the star of the team, a guard that can fill it up offensively. He averaged just shy of 19 points per game last season, and is once again their leading scorer so far in their short 2022 campaign. He and Liam Lloyd, the second-leading scorer, have had their struggles from deep, however – just 30% for Cone and 29% for Lloyd.

Texas’ defense should create a lot of problems for the struggling Northern Arizona offense. Given that, here are the keys to the game for Texas.

• Contest at the rim.

As I mentioned previously, Northern Arizona has trouble scoring at the rim, evidenced by their poor percentage from two. In order to thoroughly dominate this game, Texas has to play rim protection and force tough shots in the paint. Dylan Disu, Dillon Mitchell, Brock Cunningham, and Christian Bishop played excellent post defense against Drew Timme, Anton Watson, and Efton Reid last game, so a repeat performance from these four on the defensive end would be ideal. Sure, Timme got his 18 points, but he was never able to “take over” the game. Post defense is key for this team. Which leads me to my next point…

• Force them to shoot from outside.

Packing the paint is the optimal strategy against a team that struggles to shoot the ball. Basketball can be complex, but sometimes, it’s really simple: if a team is bad at shooting, make them shoot further away from the hoop. Force them to take deep shots and then rely on your athletes to get the boards. Dillon Mitchell is averaging eight boards per game in just 20 minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if, going forward, his minutes increase, as he is an absolutely dynamic athlete. If you weren’t convinced before, his three-play stretch of high-flying dunks against Gonzaga should have proven how valuable he can be as a lob threat and a guy that can score on put-backs.

• Continue to get after it in transition.

Texas has outscored opponents by a wide margin in transition points this season, so look for them to continue to try to run against the Lumberjacks tonight. With Hunter’s all-around abilities and Carr’s ability to distribute as a secondary ball-handler (averaging five assists per game), the offense has looked pretty impressive so far this year, averaging 82.3 points per game. Hunter leads the way with his 18.0 points per, followed by Carr with 13.0, Rice with 12.0, and Disu with 10.0. Watch for Texas to continue to keep it up tempo against NAU.

Generally, Texas is a much better team here. However, a spread of 26.5 is a big one to cover when the starters will possibly be pulled before the game’s end. I’d guess Texas wins by 20+, but 26.5 is just a tad bit high to take in my opinion.

Prediction:

NAU +26.5

Under 132.5

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