The UT game is just around the Baylor corner. No, the players and coach can't afford to look ahead or they might not cover the point spread Tuesday night. But fans can afford to look ahead. That's part of the fun of being a fan.
Dick Vitale has stated ad nauseum that UT has the best starting five in the country. (That's the same Dick Vitale who, for some unknown reason, has been nominated for the basketball Hall of Fame-just for having a schtick. What a world we live in.)
Not an entirely unreasonable conclusion, however, even from a cartoon figure who only has 8-10 talking points in his entire repertoire in any game-most of which are about Duke or Roy Williams. After all, UT starts three McD AA's (Buckman, Aldridge and Gibson), and has a fourth starter (P.J. Tucker) who might be better than any of them.
Closer to home, Kelvin Sampson has declared that UT has the best 5 players in the conference, but KU has the best nine.
Having seen more of both teams than most fans-or even most "experts"--here is my take on the two teams. Feel free to take in UT's games at Okie St and k-state and compare notes.
1. Kenton Paulino vs. Russell Robinson: Both are competent at running an offense, and neither makes an abundance of senseless turnovers. However, neither will invoke images of predecessors T.J. Ford or Aaron Miles in this regard. What Paulino can do is hit an open 3 pointer. What RR can do is wreak havoc defensively with both his foot and hand speed. IF RR puts his mind to it, Paulino will not get many open looks. Edge: Robinson. (Trade-ability Factor-i.e., would either coach trade his player for the other, leaving emotions and loyalty out of the equation: Push. Barnes can't afford to lose Paulino's shot to take pressure of Gibson.)
2. Daniel Gibson vs. Mario Chalmers: Gibson is a better scorer, although Mario has not been a slacker in that area recently. Gibson has an ultra-quick release and is better at knocking down threes off the dribble. Mario is faster and a better defender. (Not that Gibson is a slouch defensively.) Mario also has better instincts for making good things happen for his teammates--although, as a freshman, he occasionally gets carried away and makes a bonehead play. Edge: Push. (TF: Push.)
3. P.J. Tucker vs. Brandon Rush: Almost a meaningless comparison. They have entirely different roles. Tucker is a power player who cleans the boards, and, because he is a great finisher, gets a lot of garbage points. He is averaging 15.5-9.9 in league play. Rush is a perimeter player, a legitimate scorer, who also has a knack for running down rebounds. He is 15.9-7.1 in league play. Tucker is stronger. Rush is faster and a better shooter. Tucker is the ultimate competitor-a warrior. Rush is fast becoming a great competitor. Slight Edge: Tucker. (TF: Push.)
4. LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Julian Wright: Aldridge is a likely All-Conference pick. He's in the running for AA honors. He will be a lottery pick if he decides to move on to the NBA at this season's conclusion. He is shooting 50% from the field in Big 12 games, and averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds. He is seven footer with a sweet turn around shot from the baseline, and he is effective anywhere within 15 feet. He is not a hardnosed competitor, but doesn't have to be at his size. He is an executer. And a damn good one. Which brings us to Dr. JW. He is one of two X-Factors in this game. He is not as big in either height or weight as Aldridge. Nor is he as accomplished a shooter. What he is is quicker, faster, more agile, quicker off his feet, and, most importantly, a creator. He makes those around him better a la Manning, Magic, Bird. Were he to decide to play four years of college ball, he would universally be acknowledged as being of that stature by Senior Night 2009. Slight Edge: Dr. JW. (TF: Push-but Barnes would think about it.)
5. Brad Buckman vs. Sasha Kaun: Buckman is an accomplished inside player. When Aldridge and Tucker were out last year, Buckman put the team on his back and carried it with some Collison-like efforts. He can finish, knock down an occasional 15-18 footer, and is an excellent pressure free throw shooter. If there is a knock against him, it is that he will defer to Tucker and Aldridge. Sasha is trying to become Buckman, only bigger, and should be there in two years. Edge: Buckman. (TF: Edge, Buckman.)
1. Backcourt: Freshman A.J. Abrams vs. Senior JHawk: Slight edge to Hawk because he is older. Neither team would be markedly improved or weakened if these two traded uniforms. 2. Frontcourt: Mike Williams/Connor Atchley vs. Darnell Jackson/C.J. Giles/Christian Moody: This is the most glaring difference personnel-wise in the two teams. If these players are on the court with the game on the line, mail in a KU victory. Williams is a McDonald's AA, and he has the body of a prototypical power forward. Thus far in his career, he has played like Ronald McDonald. As for Atchley: think Matt Kleinmann. Moody is Moody, which is still better than Atchley. Jackson is solid, though, like Kaun, not much of a finisher. Neither is C.J., yet he is the other X-Factor in this game: UT has not faced a defensive force inside like C.J. when he is motivated-as he usually is for big-time competition. He is the Dominic Hasek of college basketball. He is the Dominator. He can block and alter Tucker shots, Buckman shots, even Aldridge shots. And Paulino and Gibson can fuhgeddaboutit. If C.J. plays 20-25 minutes, UT's inside advantage will be kept under control to an extent that will allow KU's perimeter game to prevail. Edge: KU. (TF: Guess.)
Other Factors 1. Coaching: Coaching will not decide this game. Neither guy is a dummy. Both have put together hellacious collections of talent. Talent will tell.
2. Experience: Big edge: Texas. They start two seniors and a junior. No freshmen. KU starts three freshmen and two sophs. UT's players have all played in big games, including ruining Okie St's Senior Night last year on College Game Day, playing in the NCAA, and downing Memphis this year in Memphis. KU has Moody.
3. Home court: Obviously, this edge goes to Texas. And anyone who has ever read a REAL Standings Report knows how much emphasis I place on the home court. KU's nucleus has never been in a situation like they will see Saturday, with the possible exception of the Mizzou game. Unless the Hawks take an early lead and just take the crowd out of the game, it will be a frenzied environment. When the Erwin Center is packed-which admittedly is rare-it is every bit as loud as Allen Fieldhouse. However, the Jayhawks have shown no inclination thus far to be adversely affected by the Road experience. Where the Home Court will make a difference is in keeping UT's energy level up in the final moments of the game when they would otherwise be worn down by KU's superior depth and athleticism. 4. Attitude: KU is relentless. Especially on defense. UT has more of a workmanlike attitude-that they will play forty minutes of basketball and expect the cream to rise to the top. This approach, however, left UT on the short end of the stick when the OU game came down to a gut check. Edge: KU.
If this game were on a truly neutral court, I would favor KU slightly, because the Hawks have more speed in every matchup other than Kaun/Buckman, and have more depth and athleticism. With the home court and an edge in big game experience, UT should be favored THIS time around. But not by much.
If the Hawks jump out to an early lead, it could be a long day for UT.
Actually, because of the Jayhawks' relentless pressure offensively and defensively, it will be a long day for UT, win or lose no matter who takes the early lead.
If the Hawks keep this one close for 35 minutes, they will have the fresher legs down the stretch, and that could be the difference.