The rivalry battle between Texas and Oklahoma goes to the court to open up Big 12 play. Can the Sooners find a way to pull off the upset?
TV schedule: Saturday, December 31st, 2:00 PM ET. ESPN+
Arena: Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma
It’s the Red River Rivalry: hoops edition! Both teams have experienced very different seasons for very different reasons.
Texas is built to last as a defensive juggernaut with high-scoring guards in Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter. They’re battle tested and have eye-popping home wins against Gonzaga and Creighton. They have a tough neutral site loss against Illinois at Madison Square Garden. They are also cloaked in some controversy with head coach Chris Beard’s disturbing domestic violence arrest earlier this month. Since then, Texas is still winning, but they haven’t looked the same as it took overtime to beat Rice.
Who knows how Texas will handle the Beard situation. Regardless of what happens (or what should happen), it’s fair to say we might not see him for the rest of the season, so the Longhorns will have to adapt, and this will be their toughest opponent so far since the arrest.
On Oklahoma’s side, the troubles have been on the court. They opened the season with a home loss against Sam Houston State but have since rebounded admirably. They beat a Nebraska team that looks to be well-improved and has some impressive performances themselves, they got a win over SEC foes Ole Miss and Florida as well as played within 10 points of a top-ten Arkansas team.
The Sooners are led by Nevada transfer Grant Sherfield (18 points per game, 3.8 assists per game) as well as the brotherly pairing of Tanner (11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game) and Jacob (9.7 points per game) Groves.
What Texas does well
For one, Texas is one of the toughest defensive teams in the sport. Carr and Hunter are elite on-ball guards and Sir’Jabari Rice is no stranger to smoldering defense off the bench. Dillon Mitchell and Dylan Disu are an athletic and solid defensive presence in the post. However, since Beard was arrested, the defense has slipped. They were once a top-five KenPom defense and have since slipped to 12th and trending in the wrong direction.
Despite the slip in efficiency, they still find ways to turn over their opponents, as they rank 13th in the country in turnover rate. Regardless of what scheme is being employed or defensive philosophy is being used, having guards that defend like Carr, Hunter and Rice significantly raises your floor as a team.
Offensively, Texas is the number six two-point shooting team in the country (59.6%). That number comes from the shot selection as much as it does their overall ability to score efficiently inside. Mitchell is great at catching lobs and using his athleticism to finish around the rim and Timmy Allen is great at absorbing contact and finishing through traffic.
Texas is deep. I haven’t even mentioned the offensive impact Christian Bishop brings off the bench or the spot shooting that Brock Cunningham provides. But if you’re to sum up the best part of their offense, it’s the tough shot-making ability of Carr and Hunter. Go back and watch the Gonzaga game from earlier in the year. Sure, it wasn’t the Zags’ best defensive performance, but for most of the game they contested the perimeter and forced Texas to make tough shots. And they did! They made most of those tough shots at the end of the shot clock too. That’s the ceiling of this Longhorn attack. Carr is also on an absolute tear and coming off a 41-point performance where he made 10 of his 15 three-point attempts.
What Oklahoma does well
The Sooners are crazy efficient when it comes to shooting the ball. As a team, they’re sixth nationally in effective field goal percentage and seventh nationally in three-point percentage at 39.8%. When called upon, they can shoot the lights out, especially Sherfield. Coming into this game, Sherfield is making an absurd 56% (56!!!) of his threes on decent volume.
But as efficient as they are from deep, they’re below average when it comes to three-point shooting volume and don’t rely on those shots to be successful. They make almost 57% of their two-point shots. Specifically, Tanner Groves does not miss on the block, making over 72% of his two-point attempts.
When it comes to rebounding, they don’t do it well offensively, but they’re a top-ten team in terms of defensive rebounding. They play defense conservatively as they don’t force a ton of turnovers nor do they send teams to the free throw line often. This can also explain the lack of aggressiveness on the offensive glass as well as posting one of the 15 slowest defensive tempos in the sport.
Matchup to watch
The key match-up here is going to be the guard play for both teams. Can Sherfield get clean looks against Carr and Hunter? Can he get the ball to the Groves brothers effectively on the block? If the answer to both of those is yes, Oklahoma can pull this off.
On the other hand, if Hunter and Carr continuously hit contested shots on the perimeter and Carr continues his insane hot streak from three-point range, it can force Oklahoma to play out of their comfort zone and play faster plus more threes.
Prediction: Oklahoma 61, Texas 55
I’m calling the upset here in Norman. I like Sherfield’s chances at making four three-pointers on eight attempts and for the home crowd and most importantly, home rims to be kind with bounces and luck.
Texas is going the wrong way when it comes to the one thing that set them apart from everyone else in the first month of the season: defense. This will be their toughest opponent of Beard’s absence so far and the true road environment and opening of conference play will be enough to force uncharacteristic mistakes and will be hard to shake completely.
Stuff will be said in the stands. It’s a hotly contested rivalry, there’s scandal amongst the visiting team, the crowd will consist of a ton of college kids. There are ideal conditions for a hostile environment and I just think Oklahoma dictates the terms and conditions of this game by playing slowly and efficiently enough to win this game by a few possessions.