Tennessee basketball’s final non-conference game of the year is against Texas, and it will mark the first time Rick Barnes has faced his former employer since the Longhorns fired him and Tennessee hired him back in 2015.
Texas is 13-5 (3-3 in the Big 12), and, to this point, shares some overall similarities with this Vols’ team beyond just the schools’ initials.
Both teams have underachieved a bit relative to their preseason expectations, limped their early conference schedules and since rebounded with multiple-game winning streaks. Texas has a top-10 defense, doesn’t shoot the 3 exceedingly well and has bolstered it’s win-loss record with dubs against largely inferior teams while faring sub-standard against more quality opponents. Sound familiar? Good thing the oranges are different shades.
Many thanks to the seemingly very-appropriately named Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation for answering my questions here. I know next to nothing about Texas or Mr. Eberts, but Wescott strikes me as about the most Texan-sounding name I’ve ever seen.
Since this is a hoops matchup, I’d typically keep the questions pretty basketball-centric. But, since Texas is shifting over into the SEC and recently pilfered Isaiah Neyor, the former Wyoming WR, out from under our noses, I threw in a football question or two, too.
1. Texas was ranked No. 5 in the AP’s preseason poll and started the season 12-2, with one of those losses coming to Gonzaga in the second game of the year. Texas’ BIG 12 play set out a bit rocky: starting with the first OK State game, the Longhorns lost three out of four but then responded with two-straight wins.
How are fans feeling right now? Has the concern from the early-conference schedule hiccups subsided?
For the most part I think fans are still in the honeymoon phase with Beard — there was a significant segment of the fanbase that wanted to hire him for several years before Shaka Smart left and Beard landed back in Austin. But there are also some prominent voices who aren’t particularly big fans of Beard and for them, the issues this season are indicative of larger concerns with him as a coach, especially in regards to his style of play.
Beard has said on numerous occasions that this team remains a work in progress and that remains the case until Texas can prove that it can play with more consistency. The team looked good in wins against Oklahoma and against TCU on Tuesday, but they just haven’t been able to sustain that level of play over multiple games. With the schedule getting more difficult starting on Saturday, the defining portion of the season is looming.
2. Personally, I found Texas little-brothering Texas Tech for its newly-minted head coach Chris Beard hilarious and also a seemingly really sound basketball hire. Obviously the Texas administration agrees with at least the last part of that statement, given the 7-year/ $35 million contract Beard signed to make the switch. I know it’s early in Beard’s tenure, but what sorta changes are y’all seeing in the way Beard runs his teams compared to the Longhorns’ last coach, Shaka Smart? And how mad were Texas Tech fans?
Texas Tech fans were extremely mad. They were convinced that Beard was going to stay in Lubbock, but his ties to Texas — he was a student assistant under Tom Penders in the late 90s — and the higher upside to this Longhorn program eventually won out.
The biggest difference is how hard Beard works to build relationships with the fans. Texas basketball ranks a distant second to football for most fans, and even behind baseball for some, so it’s difficult to get a high level of support at the Erwin Center. I would argue that Beard has been more successful increasing student interest than he has in putting a good product on the court.
Beard is known for his ability to integrate transfers into his program and that’s definitely the case this year, as much out of necessity as design, and that’s an approach that Smart never took in Austin — he wanted to build the program instead of teams and that was arguably one of the biggest mistakes that he made.
3. Smart won just 56 percent of his games during his six seasons in Austin and had a losing record in conference play, despite notching three-straight top-10 recruiting classes in ‘16, ‘17 and ‘18. So what didn’t work? When Texas fired Barnes and hired Smart, Smart was probably considered a home-run hire given his overwhelming success at VCU, right? Or no?
I’m not sure if Smart qualified as a home-run hire, but he was definitely one of the hottest young names on the market and had turned down a number of high-profile programs — it was a definite coup to get him to leave VCU.
A handful of things happened. He got away from using a lot of the full-court press that defined his VCU teams. He had some recruiting misses early in his tenure and transitioning from taking hard-nosed, under-recruited players to national prospects didn’t pay off. He didn’t have a lot of continuity on his coaching staff — despite his lack of success at Texas, he had three assistants hired as head coaches. And there was some bad luck, too.
4. Give us Texas’ side of the story regarding firing Barnes.
Barnes set a high standard for the program with his success in the 2000s and just wasn’t able to sustain it. Some of it fell on his coaching style — he had a tendency to wear down his teams by February, the exact time that they needed to be peaking. Some of it was his large 2011 recruiting class almost completely washing out. The Big 12 got better around him, too, and while that was happening, the conference moved to the double round-robin schedule, making it even more difficult to win.
5. Who are the impact players for Texas that Vol fans need to keep eyes on during the game? And if you had to point to a couple statistical categories as keys for Texas getting the dub, what would they be and why?
Texas has five players who average between nine and 12 points per game, so it’s hard to point anyone out specifically, but senior guard Marcus Carr is a player to watch. He’s struggled at times to adjust to not being the guy after scoring a lot for a bad Minnesota team. Recently, though, he’s flashed as a player who can make a big impact as a shotmaker and that’s something that Texas needs out of him going forward.
There are a few areas that I’ve come to focus on with this team — forced turnovers and opponent points per possession, and then three-point shooting and fast-break points. When Texas plays average defense, they lose. They’ve also played at a glacially-slow pace for most of the year and have underachieved as a three-point shooting team. Against TCU, they shot well and had 22 fast-break points. If they aren’t doing either of those things well, they really struggle to score, as evidenced by a scoring drought of more than 10 minutes against Oklahoma State last Saturday.
6. Tennessee’s just 2-3 on the road this year, while Texas has just one loss — a one-pointer to K State — so far at home. What kind of environment can Vol players and fans expect?
The fan support at the Erwin Center has actually been a pleasant surprise recently and I expect that to continue on Saturday with what should be the best crowd this season. Texas fans were ready to move on from Barnes when he was fired, but the lack of success under Smart made a lot of people nostalgic for the Barnes era, so he should receive a warm reception in his return.
7. It’s a tie game, and then Tennessee takes a two-point lead with 15 seconds left in the game. Take us through what Texas does next.
Texas runs a two-man game with Carr and senior forward Timmy Allen to get the best available shot. Carr prides himself on his ability to make shots in those situations. Against Kansas State last week, he missed, but he’s the player Beard wants making decisions at the end of games.
8. Let’s talk football — just for a bit. How are Longhorn fans feeling about the move to the SEC? And then part-two: first-year Head Coach Steve Sarkisian led the team to a pretty public 5-7 record that included six-straight losses, one of which was to Kansas, at home. In hoops, a good coach can change the trajectory of a program with one good recruiting class. Football’s often a different animal in that regard. But I can’t imagine Texans being bastions of patience, so what’s the general consensus of fans about Sark after year one?
There’s a mix of excitement and fear with the move to the SEC. Excitement about the increased level of competition and a much improved home schedule and fear that the Longhorns aren’t ready.
The 5-7 record definitely increased the pressure on Sarkisian to succeed this season — he was hired to improve a program that went 7-3 in 2020 and wasn’t able to accomplish that goal. If the Horns underachieve for a second straight year under Sarkisian, there’s a chance he could be on the hot seat heading into 2023.
9. What kinda publicity did the Isaiah Neyor commitment get? We were looking forward to seeing him catch TDs in a lighter shade of orange.
Xavier Worthy had one of the best freshman seasons of any wide receiver in school history, but he didn’t have much help, so landing Neyor addressed a huge need for Texas and was treated accordingly. I’m a fan of Neyor and I think he’s primed to have a big season for the Longhorns.
10. Okay, so there’s no way you didn’t see the following clip. (The exact, word-for-word Google search that yielded this video as the first result: “Texas media stupid question Sarkisian”
Do you know this guy? Were you there when he “asked,” this “question?” I don’t wanna step on any toes — maybe he’s a buddy of yours or whatever. I’ve done my share of ridiculous things, but I guess I was lucky enough to not do them in such a public setting. Surely you had a good laugh here, right?
I was not at the press conference when Terry Middleton of Horns Illustrated asked that question, but it definitely generated a lot of conversation nationally and in the Texas press corps. He’s pretty new on the beat, so I don’t have a relationship with him. For anyone interested, here’s Middleton’s explanation for his endless question. Since he tends towards long-winded questions with little value, it wasn’t amusing as much as it was irritating for wasting valuable time — even before he became infamous, his questions generated a lot of eye rolls from other writers on the beat.
11. Give us a projection for the game, if you wanna. Feel free to throw out a score or just a general idea of what you’re expecting.
Unless Texas somehow manages to shoot well from distance and get out in transition to create some separation, Saturday’s game is shaping up as an ugly, defensive-oriented rock fight with a final score in the 60s for both teams.
Thanks again to Wescott for powering through my Terry-Middleton-from-Horns-Illustrated-like questions.
The last time these two plays played No. 15 Texas beat No. 5 Tennessee 97-78. The time before that?
This time? We’ll see. Tennessee at Texas, Saturday, 8 PM.