We reached out to Wescott Eberts and Anthony Rizzo (nope, not that one I don’t think), writers at Burnt Orange Nation - SBnation’s Texas Longhorns blog.
Wescott is an Indiana native who grew up a huge basketball fan of Illinois, where his parents met in graduate school. He became indoctrinated into Texas football after starting at UT in 2002. He has written for Burnt Orange Nation since 2008 and started running the site full time in 2018. Anthony is currently a college student from the southeast Michigan area and has been a diehard Texas Longhorns fan for practically his entire life — ever since Vince Young beat his beloved Wolverines in the Rose Bowl in 2004. He has been a contributing writer at Burnt Orange Nation for the past three years.
VUHoops: Texas is off to a great start this year. What are some things you’ve seen this year that the Longhorns will have to continue doing to be successful?
Wescott Eberts: During the Maui Invitational, Shaka Smart said that he wants this team to base its identity on the defensive end. With plenty of length and athleticism in the frontcourt and experience in the backcourt, the Longhorns have the personnel and ability to dominate on that end of court. With this team trying to play faster than previous Smart teams at Texas, getting those stops on the defensive end — and creating turnovers, specifically — allows the Horns to get out in transition and score easy baskets.
Anthony Rizzo: In years past, if Texas didn’t shoot the ball well from three, they’d typically lose winnable games due to lack of offense. This year’s experienced group has a different feel to them already — they play physical and can dictate the outcome of games through their performance on defense. Defense has emerged as the team’s identity and everyone — from starter to 10th man — seems to have found a suitable role because of it.
VUHoops: On the flip side, where do the Longhorns need to improve in order to make a long run in the tournament?
Wescott Eberts: Through the first four games, Texas has struggled at times to rebound the ball defensively, so that’s the biggest key, but Smart’s group is also seeking that team sports ideal — getting everyone to play well at the same time. Senior forward Jericho Sims has struggled to stay on the court as a result of foul issues and ineffectiveness, highly-rated freshman forward Greg Brown III is still adjusting to college basketball, and redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones is still trying to find his three-point stroke after sitting out the season opener. If the Longhorns get can all the key contributors firing on all cylinders at the same time, this team has the ability to be one of the best in the country.
Anthony Rizzo: Five-star freshman sensation Greg Brown hasn’t yet put it all together offensively. When he starts knocking down shots and is taking defenders to the hoop with consistency, that’s when Texas can reach their full potential. As expected for a freshman early in the season, he looks a bit out of control. The game will slow down for him as the season progresses.
VUHoops: When Shaka Smart came to Austin it was expected that he’d elevate UT to the next level. Since then, there’s been some progress but the Longhorns have more or less ended the season in the middle of the pack. This year seems different - is it? How has Coach Smart laid the foundation for a successful season? Do you see Coach Smart as the Longhorns’ coach for the foreseeable future?
Wescott Eberts: If this year isn’t different, it may be the last for Smart. His first team in Austin was heavy with seniors and since then he’s been building towards this year while dealing with some unfortunate luck and avoiding short-term solutions like graduate transfers, but now he has a senior point guard for the first time since arriving on the Forty Acres and plenty of experience around Matt Coleman, that senior point guard who Smart first started recruiting in middle school. In fact, Texas had a player transfer already and senior guard Jase Febres is out following microfacture surgery, but otherwise, all the production from last season’s team is back.
Anthony Rizzo: With 12 returning scholarship players plus Brown on the roster, expectations have never been higher for Shaka Smart at Texas. His roster has finally peaked in Year 6. They have the perfect mesh of experience, talent, and depth. One strong season would solidify himself as UT’s head coach for the foreseeable future.
VUHoops: Who is a player that Villanova should watch out for on Sunday?
Wescott Eberts: Matt Coleman. The senior point guard hit the game-winning shot against North Carolina to win the Maui Invitational and is averaging 16.3 points and five assists per game to start the season. He’s the engine for the Longhorns, getting the team out in transition and scoring efficiently at all three levels.
Anthony Rizzo: Point guard Matt Coleman is engine of this Texas team — the offense goes how he goes. He’s the team’s best shot creator and playmaker. Keeping him in check would be a major win for Villanova
VUHoops: Is there a sleeper player that could potentially be a difference maker on Sunday?
Wescott Eberts: Watch out for redshirt sophomore guard Brock Cunningham. As Coleman likes to say, Cunningham is the type of player you love to play with and hate to play against — he’ll hustle all over the court, dive for loose balls, and engage in plenty of trash talking. Cunningham doesn’t usually score much, but he’ll fill up the stat sheet otherwise and typically out-performs the rest of the box score in plus/minus.
Anthony Rizzo: 6’11” forward Kai Jones is the player that’s improved the most since last season. Smart said Jones never played any position besides center before he arrived at Texas. Now, he’s draining threes and squaring up defenders around the perimeter. His ceiling is tremendously high for someone his size. Potential NBA talent.
VUHoops: What does Villanova need to do to beat Texas?
Wescott Eberts: Even though Texas is undefeated, the blueprint for beating the Longhorns looks like attacking the paint to get them in foul trouble and get to the free-throw line while securing enough offensive rebounds to limit possessions for Texas.
Anthony Rizzo: If Villanova wins the matchups at the guard positions, they’ll likely win the game. Indiana and North Carolina shot the ball terribly against Texas because of poor guard play. The Longhorns have yet to face a backcourt as good as Villanova’s.
VUHoops: What does Texas need to do to beat Villanova?
Wescott Eberts: As Smart likes to say, this is just another “us game” for the Longhorns. If they can get out in transition to score some easy points, focus on their identity as a defense-first team, stay out of foul trouble, and rebound better defensively, this is a tough team to beat.
Anthony Rizzo: Starts with defending the three as well as they did in the Maui Invitational. We’ll see if Texas can score in bunches like Villanova can. They’ll need to respond to every Nova scoring run with one of their own.
VUHoops: Villanova fans have fond memories of watching the Wildcats win the 2016 and 2018 National Championships in Texas. What is the best UT sports moment you’ve seen live?
Wescott Eberts: Unfortunately, I missed the 2006 Rose Bowl against USC, so I think my favorite moment was the big comeback against Oklahoma State in 2004. Texas got down 35-7 in the first half and then scored 49 straight points.
Anthony Rizzo: I was barely old enough to remember parts from the USC-Texas National Championship game in 2005, so I have to say watching Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley tear apart Big 12 defenses for 3-4 years from 2006-09. One of, if not the best quarterback-wide receiver duo in college football history.
VUHoops: All-time favorite Texas basketball player?
Wescott Eberts: TJ Ford. He led the Horns to the Final Four my freshman year of college.
Anthony Rizzo: Definitely KD. Honorable mention: P.J. Tucker.
VUHoops: Does Kevin Durant have a burner account on Burnt Orange Nation?
Wescott Eberts: Haha, I’d like to think he does, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it.
Anthony Rizzo: Haha, probably not. I see he’s openly active with his fans and haters on his own personal Twitter page now. Some of those interactions are gold.
VUHoops: If you could plan your own mini-tournament in a bubble, which three teams would you throw in there with Texas?
Wescott Eberts: I’ll go with three teams that Texas was scheduled to play this season — Gonzaga, Villanova, and Kentucky.
Anthony Rizzo: Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. I’d replace North Carolina with Villanova because I admire Jay Wright’s program so much but I can’t ignore our dominance over Roy Williams and UNC.
VUHoops: What ended up being a guilty pleasure for you during lockdown?
Wescott Eberts: Binging “Tiger King”
Anthony Rizzo: Smoothies.
VUHoops: Finally, does Colt McCoy get it done for the Giants against Seattle?
Wescott Eberts: I love Colt, but he’s been a career backup for a reason and the Giants just aren’t that good. I’ll take Seattle in that one.
Anthony Rizzo: No, only because his opposing quarterback is Russell Wilson. But I can see it being a one possession game! Colt’s the ideal game-managing backup quarterback.
Many thanks for Wescott and Anthony for agreeing to chat with us! The Wildcats will tip off against the Longhorns on Sunday at 1:00 pm on ESPN.