In the ongoing search to find the formula that might beat Kentucky, we arrive at the Texas Longhorns and a game at Rupp Arena on Friday night. Texas head coach Rick Barnes has talent and ample size on his roster, and this will be the first time the top-ranked Wildcats face a good deal of both.
The Longhorns don’t have two squadrons featuring 7-footers and almost 7-footers, but they do have just enough height to turn Rupp into the world’s most hostile test kitchen.
“We got good players, too,” Barnes said this week. “Don’t think we don’t, now. Good players like these type of environments, and we’re going to come play. We don’t have anything scheduled to visit any horse farms or anything like that.”
It’s not the perfect setup, as Texas is missing tempo-controlling point guard Isaiah Taylor due to a broken wrist, but it will have to do for a December test. Few teams can compete with the length of Kentucky, which includes seven players who are 6-foot-8 or taller and play at least 15 minutes per game. The Wildcats have blocked 65 shots in seven games, on pace for 372 in 40 contests, which would break their own school and national record of 344 set in 2011-12. All one oversized rim defender has to do is throw up his arms while another giant sails in from the side to swat away what was already a difficult attempt. It’s effective for Kentucky and maddening for their opponents. How do you compete with a team that substitutes Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns for Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson? No team has shot better than 38 percent against the 'Cats this season.
But then there’s Texas, which typically starts 6-8 senior Jonathan Holmes, 6-9 junior Connor Lammert and 6-9, 285-pound junior Cameron Ridley. Six-foot-11 freshman Myles Turner -- the team’s third-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game -- comes off the bench. The Longhorns have a rebound margin of plus-13.9, ranking fourth in the country. (Kentucky is second at plus-14.6.) The Wildcats have seen a top-10 team before, and the result was a 32-point disintegration of Kansas on Nov. 18. But the Jayhawks don't give meaningful minutes to anyone taller than 6-8.
This is the first opponent that has the height and muscle to potentially neutralize Kentucky’s physical advantage on both ends. Holmes is shooting 50 percent from three-point range, efficiency that demands attention from Wildcats’ bigs on the perimeter. The 240-pound Lammert is averaging 6.4 rebounds per game, and Ridley has the bulk to clear space, though the question is if he has the lift to take advantage of it. And Turner is a scoring threat from anywhere on the court and an accomplished shot-blocker himself (23 swats so far this season).
“They’re a really big team, so I think it’ll be a challenge for us,” Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison said, “but also I think we’re kind of used to it because we can play each other in practice.”
After seven games, the best guess at the recipe for beating Kentucky seems to be: size, the ability to spread the floor and score from all five spots and a guard or two who can control the pace. There might be more optimism for the Longhorns if Taylor, the team's leading scorer (15.0 points per game) and distributor (3.0 assists), was available. His absence means Texas' test seems destined to be graded as Incomplete, regardless of the outcome. “It is huge,” Barnes said of the loss of his sophomore point guard. “I could sit here and say it’s not. It’s huge ... Our speed changes. (Taylor) plays the point differently than Javan (Felix) or (Demarcus) Holland or (Kendal) Yancy. He alleviates a lot of pressure for us. Guys have a lot of belief in his leadership and swagger, no question about that.”
Still, Taylor or no Taylor, Texas’ frontline will be able to above the Kentucky tree line on Friday night. The Longhorns’ forwards have the ability to move the Wildcats’ frontcourt around. So the game will at least provide some idea of how much size matters to the nation's best team. Maybe Texas will counteract Kentucky’s strength and spark hope for other contenders that have height on their rosters. Or maybe it will confirm those other contenders’ worst fears: That when the Wildcats take the floor, you might as well visit the horse farm instead.