One of the real surprises in the Southern Conference so far this season has been the play of the Samford Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs come into the matchup having gotten off to a 6-2 start to the young 2015-16 basketball season, while Texas enters Friday night's matchup having posted a 3-3 record through its first six games this season, having posted wins over Texas A&M Corpus-Christi (67-56), Washington (82-70), and UT-Arlington (80-73), while having lost games to Michigan (L, 78-72), Washington (L, 77-71) and Texas A&M (L, 84-73).
The Bulldogs opened the season with a loss at Louisville before winning five-straight. That winning streak would eventually be ended by Austin Peay this past weekend, as the Bulldogs dropped a 74-73 decision to Austin Peay this past weekend. The Bulldogs rebounded on Monday night by getting a 77-71 win over Jacksonville State this past Tuesday night.
The Bulldogs and Longhorns will be meeting for just the second time, with the only other meeting between the two programs coming back during the 2005-06 season, as the Longhorns were able to post a 77-33 meeting in what was the first game of the season for both clubs. The Longhorns would enter that matchup as the No. 5 ranked team in the country. It will also mark the second time this season that the Bulldogs have met an opponent from a power conference, as the Bulldogs also faced Louisville to open the season.
A Look at the Longhorns:
The Texas Longhorns are under the direction of a new head coach, with Shaka Smart having taken the reins of the Texas basketball program after having moved from his previous job, where he was the head coach of the VCU Rams prior to showing up in Austin.
The Longhorns have won two of their three games on the home floor this season, with Texas needing overtime to get their third win the last time out against UT-Arlington. The last 14 seasons have seen the Longhorns make the Frank Erwin an especially tough venue for visitors, having posted a 193-26 record since the start of the 2002-03 season.
During his time as the head coach at VCU, Smart showed he was a proven winner. In six years as the head coach of the Rams, he amassed 163, which ranks as the second-most in a six-year period in NCAA history. Only Brad Stevens' 166 wins at Butler during a six-year span as the head coach of the Bulldogs. I
Texas is another name program, with a great tradition, having made 32 NCAA Tournament appearances. With over 70 percent of the roster returning for the Longhorns this season, it was of little surprise to see the Longhorns picked in the upper echelon of the preseason league poll, as the Longhorns were selected to finish fourth in the preseason Big 12 poll.
The Longhorns have been a consistent qualifier for the NCAA postseason, having qualified for 17 of the past 24 NCAA Tournaments. The Longhorns were in the tournament last season, winning 20 games (20-14) and made it all the way to the Big 12 title game before losing to Iowa State, 69-67.
The Longhorns would not make it out of the opening round, however, losing a 68-56 game to Butler in the opening round. Leading the returnees for the Longhorns this season is center Cameron Ridley (11.0 PPG, 9.7 RPG), who is one of the toughest big men to guard in the nation. Ridley is like a defensive tackle playing basketball, as he stands 6-10 and weighs 290 lbs.
He has started all nine games for the Longhorns this season, and he has recorded double-digit rebound games in four out of six contests this season for Texas, including the last time coming in a win over Washington, as Ridley recorded one of his better games of the season against the Washington Huskies three games back, as he posted 13 points and 11 rebounds in a 12-point win over the Huskies. Ridley also had 14 points and five boards in the loss to Michigan.
The last time out against UT-Arlington, Ridley finished with seven points and four boards. So far this season, Ridley is shooting an astounding 72.2% (26-of-36) from the field. That ranks him sixth nationally in field goal percentage through the first six games this season.
Teaming with Ridley under the basket for the Longhorns will be Connor Lammert (7.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG), as he gives the Longhorns a pair of twin towers in the post this season, as Lammert stands 6-10. The reliable senior started 26 of 34 games for the Longhorns as a junior last season and has opened the 2015-16 with starts in all six contests for Texas. Ridley can also be a menace on the defensive end for the Longhorns, as he posted seven blocks in a loss earlier this season to Washington in the first of two meetings between the two, which took place in Shanghai, China.
Lammert had a solid outing the last time out against UT-Arlington, as he scored nine points and grabbed five boards in the win last Tuesday night. Lammert is one of the most versatile players on the Texas roster, as he is effective at stepping out and shooting the perimeter shot. He added three triples in wins over UT-Arlington and Texas A&M Corpus Christi this season. Lammert has knocked down 11 triples this season, ranking second on the club, and has knocked down those shots at a 47.8% (11-of-23) from three-point range this season.
The Longhorns will employ the services of three guards in the backcourt, as Devan Felix (9.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.2 APG), Isaiah Taylor (16.0 PPG, 5.0 APG, 2.8 RPG) and DeMarcus Holland (4.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG) making up the three-headed monster that is Shaka Smart's backcourt.
It all starts with Felix, who runs the point for Texas. The 5-11 guard is tough off the dribble, and also ranks as the team's top perimeter shooter this season, having connected on 50% (13-of-26) from three-point range this season.
Felix is coming off an outstanding performance in Texas' win over UT-Arlington Tuesday night, as he posted 18 points and dished out three assists, finishing as one of two players in double figures for the Longhorns. For his career, Felix enters Friday night's non-conference contest with Samford having reached double figures in 47-career games, and has seven 20-point performances in his Texas career. Felix ranks as one of the team's top defenders, having registered seven steals so far this season.
The top player on the roster, however, is Taylor. The recently named candidate for the Naismith Award--the
college basketball version of the Heisman Trophy--is the best player on the floor heading ino the Friday night showdown. The last time out, it was Taylor getting it done from the foul stripe, as he connected on a career-best 13-of-17 shots from the free throw line. He scored all of his game-high 21 points in the second half in the win over UT-Arlington the last time out. It was the second time Taylor has reached the 20-point plateau in his career, and it marked the 10th time he has done so in his career.
Taylor leads the team in points (16.0) and assists (5.0) coming into Friday night's contest. Earlier this season in a loss to Washington in Shanghai, China, Taylor turned in his best-career game, posting 27 points in the loss to the Huskies.
Holland rounds out the starting five for the Longhorns. The 6-3 guard is part of a five-man senior class for the Longhorns is often referred to as the "glue guy" for Texas and he does all the little things that helps the Longhorns win ballgames.
The top player off the bench for the Longhorns is guard Eric Davis, Jr., (10.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG) who comes off the bench and is one of three players averaging in double figures entering Friday night's contest. Davis was rated as the No. 45 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN, coming out of Saginaw Arthur Hill High School. He was a finalist for the Mr. Basketball award in Michigan. So far in his young Texas career, Davis has connected on 21-of-46 shots from the field (45.7%) and is 9-for-22 (40%) from three-point land this season.
Overall this season, the Longhorns are scoring 74.2 PPG as a team, while allowing 73.0 PPG. The Longhorns are shooting 40.5% (140-of-346) from the field this season, while shooting 40.5% (44-of-127) from three-point range this season.
A Look at the Bulldogs:
Samford comes into its contest against Texas off to a great start, and a lot of the Bulldogs' strong play through the early portion of the season comes as a result of the way the Bulldogs' backcourt has performed up until this point in 2015-16. The start for the Bulldogs marks its best since the 1996-97 campaign. That season saw Samford open the campaign with a 7-1 mark through its first eight games, and the Bulldogs would go on to finish with a 19-9 overall mark that season.
The duo leading the strong backcourt for head coach Scott Padgett's Bulldogs this season has been Darius Jones-Gibson (17.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG) and Christen Cunningham (14.1 PPG, 3.5 APG), who have already shown that comprise one of the top backcourts in the Southern Conference through the early portion of the season.
Both have picked right off where they left off last season, as both were able to garner All-SoCon honors. One of the reasons for Jones-Gibson's early success has been getting to the charity stripe, as he heads into the matchup with Texas ranking fourth in the nation in free throws attempted (71) and he ranks eighth in the nation in free throws made (51).
Jones-Gibson's success certainly has contributed largely to the Bulldogs ranking third nationally in free throws made (155) and seventh in foul shots attempted (211). The senior had the best game of his career early on in the season, as he posted 31 points in a win over Auburn-Montgomery. He also added a career-high 10 rebounds in the win.
It was the first double-double of his Samford career. He had another outstanding performance in the win over North Texas, posting a game-high 23 points, including a 12-for-15 output from the free throw line in the win. Jones-Gibson is more a slashing type guard rather than a perimeter threat, having connected on just 4-of-14 attempts from three-point range this season. His 17.4 PPG ranks him fourth in the Southern Conference in scoring this season. Jones-Gibson has reached the 20-point plateau three times already this season, including 21 points the last time out in the win over Jacksonville State.
Cunningham has been an effective sidekick in the backcourt alongside Jones-Gibson, as the duo combines to average 31.5 of the team's 74.8 PPG this season. The fun-n-gun offense, referred to as "Talladega" by head coach Scott Padgett has been one of the more exciting draws in the SoCon this season, ranking fifth overall in the SoCon in scoring offense this season.
Cunningham's 14.1 PPG currently ranks eighth overall in the SoCon in scoring, and his 3.5 assists-per-game ranks seventh among the league's leaders. The sophomore's top game this season came in the Mean Green Showcase, as he posted 26 points in a win over Idaho, which is the second-highest total on the team behind Jones-Gibson's 31 points earlier this season. Cunningham is just 5-of-13 from three-point range through the first eight games.
With a combined nine triples between the Bulldog guards, it shows that the two players aren't taking a lot of ill-advised shots out of the flow of the offense, and it also shows the two guards are getting a lot of baskets on breaks and driving to the basket aggressively.
Set to start underneath the basket for Padgett's Bulldogs are the trio of Jamal Shabazz (9.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG), Iman Johnson (3.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and Wyatt Walker (6.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG). The trio underneath is a bit undersized, but have done a nice job of supplementing the backcourt scorers Jones-Gibson and Cunningham.
Shabazz is the most athletic player in the starting five for the Bulldogs, and he ranks 28th nationally in free throw shooting this season, hitting them at a 90.9% (20-for-22) clip on the campaign. In the loss to Austin Peay recently, Shabazz erupted for a career-high 24 points, with 15 of those points coming on five triples against the Governors. Shabazz is second on the team with 11 three-point field goals made this season.
Johnson, who is widely regarded as one of the best defenders on the team, returns underneath at one forward. Walker is in his first season as a starter for the Bulldogs, and the 6-9 freshman center posted his career-high in points against North Texas, posting 13 points in a win, while finishing with a career and season-high 12 boards in the win over Troy. He is shooting a team-best 56.8% (21-of-37) from the field.
The top player off the bench is 6-7 forward Matt Rose (9.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG), who is probably the team's top three-point shooter, having knocked down a team best 42.6% from three-point range this season on a team-best 13 made triples.
Who Wins:--This game is a winnable one for the Bulldogs, but given the size differential underneath, I think Texas outmuscles Samford in this one.
Texas 78, Samford 70