Kansas-Texas hoops battle looms; what makes Longhorns different from last year? | Conference chatter

To think the Longhorns will have another letdown in the second half of this season would be to seriously undermine the differences from last year that coach Rick Barnes’ 2010-11 squad has displayed.

No. 2 Kansas will take on No. 10 Texas at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse in the Big 12 regular season game of the year. My reason for the billing of high expectations: Texas looks a whole lot different than last season.

The main differences:

Jordan Hamilton, right, drives around Texas A&M's  Khris Middleton on Wednesday in Austin, Texas

Jordan Hamilton, right, drives around Texas A&M’s Khris Middleton on Wednesday in Austin, Texas by esorrentino

• Sophomore Jordan Hamilton is not playing like he did last season, when he took ill-advised shots that made you play an over/under guessing game on the amount of sprints Barnes had in store for him the next day in practice.

This season, the 6-foot-7 guard/forward looks like a more polished player. I’ll estimate 75 percent of our KUsports.com regular hoops commenters saw part of the Texas-Texas A&M game Wednesday night. Hamilton went off for 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting. When he hoisted threes, he was open. When he put up two-pointers, he was under control. In fact, he didn’t miss a shot from inside the arc (7-of-7) all night. Hamilton also nailed 4-of-4 free throws and grabbed eight boards.

Barnes has rewarded Hamilton for his offseason improvement with 10 more minutes per game and a starting spot for all 18 of UT’s games this season. Hamilton didn’t start any games last season. The one-year difference is rather startling:

Points per game 2009-10: 10
Points per game 2010-11: 19.7

Rebounds per game 2009-10: 3.7
Rebounds per game 2010-11: 7.1

Assists per game 2009-10: 1.5
Assists per game 2010-11: 2.3

Field-goal percentage 2009-10: .410 (.365 from three-point range)
Field-goal percentage 2010-11: .474 (.424 from three-point range)

Free-throw percentage 2009-10: .578
Free-throw percentage 2010-11: .725

You get the idea.

This is a completely different player. Hamilton, along with KU’s Marcus Morris, are my two front-runners to this point for Big 12 player of the year.

• Barnes couldn’t figure out a consistent rotation last season, when eight players averaged at least 19 minutes per game. This year, only five players average at least 19 minutes per game. Roles are more clearly defined. For example:

(1) Point guard/offensive facilitator: Cory Joseph
(2) Defensive specialist: Dogus Balbay
(3) Primary scorer: Jordan Hamilton
(4) Glue/hustle guy: Gary Johnson
(5) Legitimate inside presence on offense/defense, shot blocker: Tristan Thompson
Sixth man: J’Covan Brown

• Freshmen Thompson and Joseph sparked the Longhorns immediately upon their arrival on the court. Texas seems to have better chemistry this season with the Canada natives in the starting lineup. Odd, considering the Longhorns had seniors Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Justin Mason last season. Again, though, roles were up in the air and with eight to 10 players getting consistent playing time, rhythm was hard to find on a game-to-game basis.

Texas guard Cory Joseph (5) drives around Oklahoma's Cameron Clark (21) on Jan. 15 in Austin, Texas

Texas guard Cory Joseph (5) drives around Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark (21) on Jan. 15 in Austin, Texas by esorrentino

Joseph, who has drawn comparisons to former UT guard D.J. Augustin, has given the Longhorns a steady point guard and facilitator, a missing component from last season. A solid point guard seems to be imperative with Barnes’ best teams. T.J. Ford led Texas to a Final Four in 2003, while Augustin was the floor general for the 2008 Elite Eight team.

Thompson is incredibly active in the paint. He leads the Big 12 in offensive rebounds and ranks second in blocked shots per game. He plays at a seemingly bigger size than his actual height of 6-8 because of his long arms.

Tristan Thompson throws down a dunk against Texas A&M on Wednesday in Austin, Texas

Tristan Thompson throws down a dunk against Texas A&M on Wednesday in Austin, Texas by esorrentino

• Texas can flat-out defend. The Longhorns, according to stat wizard Ken Pomeroy, are the second-best team in the country when it comes to effective field goal percentage defense (holding opponents to 40.7 percent). Kansas, for reference, isn’t half bad either, ranking fourth in the country in Pomeroy’s rankings at 42 percent.

Combining these factors, Texas has the look of a team that could seriously threaten KU’s 69-game home win streak, best in the country by a long shot.

KU defensive assignments?

When mulling over the potential matchups for Saturday, Hamilton, at the 3-spot, presents an interesting challenge for KU’s typical starting lineup.

At 6-7, Hamilton appears too tall for starting KU guards Tyshawn Taylor (6-3), Tyrel Reed (6-3) or Josh Selby (6-2).

That leaves Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris. Marcus is certainly athletic enough to draw the Hamilton assignment, but I’d think KU coach Bill Self would want the 6-9 forward playing inside against Gary Johnson. Ditto to Markieff and Tristan Thompson, which should be a monster encounter.

What do you think? Should KU stick one of its usual starting guards on Hamilton, or bench one of them in favor of a taller option, like 6-4 Brady Morningstar, who did a superb job on Monday defensively against Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn?

Saturday’s game in Lawrence should provide can’t-miss entertainment between the two best teams in the Big 12 this season. Barnes has Texas in a familiar position again, after a disappointing last season, of challenging Kansas for the Big 12 title.

That should be all for now, friends. As always, discuss.

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