For about the first 15 minutes of the contest Texas looked like it had finally turned the corner offensively. They played with tremendous tempo cutting, screening, and passing with urgency that created mismatches and uncertainty in UCLA's normally aggressive man to man defense. The ball movement and tempo led to great shots and offensive rebounding opportunities that allowed Texas to exploit its huge advantage along the frontcourt. And then there came the 12 point lead, and with it, fool's gold. Fool's gold in the sense that players seemed to forget what had actually confounded a normally stout UCLA defensive squad. Instead of crisp ball reversal, hard cutting, and overall unselfish basketball, Texas took a step backwards relying on deep catch and shoot heat checks, misguided dribble and pull midrange shots, and a general disdain for post entry. But we'll get to that later, and before we do, we'll throw in the proverbial a win is a win. Hell, don't get me wrong, it's a big win against a top ten club and hopefully a harbinger of what this team can accomplish when it gets its offensive head screwed on straight. I'm somewhat excited, yet pissed. Weird. On to the grades.
AJ Abrams. B+. Look, based on the box score alone, he's your MVP. At one point in the first when AJ was 4-4 I turned to my brother and said, "Wow, AJ is really letting the game come to him. He's getting shots within the confines of the offense and everyone else is getting involved." I felt like Norman Dale talking to Shooter in Hoosiers. My brother then ruined the moment by asking why HenryJames sold Herbalife out of his van. Then AJ ruined the moment by taking 4 bad shots in a row before the half. He hit one, was bailed out by being fouled on the second, and just flat missed the last two. Fool's gold. I then promptly texted Sailer Ripley that AJ may shoot us out of the game. And he nearly did by going 4-11 in stanza 2, which should have been 3-11 if you discount his pull up bank. Not to mention the fact that his misses led to runouts by UCLA and the general unsettling affect he had on Damion James' shot selection. But still, the kid finished with 31 and was 8-9 from the stripe. I'll take it, but if I'm Barnes, I hammer in how great the "TEAM" looked when he was 4-4.
Damion James. A-. Offensively I thought Damion had a meh, kind of night. Combine that with the fact that Damion James went 5-11 from the field and that tells you all you need to know about what I think of Damion. The 13 points are fine, but I think James needs to slash to the basket much more than he is now. Two foul shots is simply not cutting it. That's a function of shots from other players going up early in the shot clock and Damion simply not being aggressive enough. Stop settling partner and get to the rack. On the glass, dude is an athletic freak. He simply outclassed UCLA's frontcourt and made them look like a mid-major. Thirteen boards? That's the truth.
Connor Atchley. B. Connor sort of was the forgotten man offensively after the first half. I'll chalk that up to his relentless defense of the high ball screen. He did a terrific job of hedging and showing against UCLA's talented backcourt, and this may have contributed to his disappearance on offense. The four rebounds are somewhat concerning, but Atchley was solid in a complimentary role.
Justin Mason. A-. Once again, Justin Mason was the Horns best option at lead guard. The junior glue guy finished the game with 6 dimes and only 1 turnover. More importantly, Mason was able to break down the normally fierce UCLA perimeter defense and get to the rim. His emergence as a legit point guard should make you, as a Longhorn fan, just downright giddy. He also added 6 rebounds including 4 offensive boards to make it a very productive night. Throw in 3 steals and 6 turnovers for his counterpart Darren Collison, and you can see how valuable Mason was. If Justin finishes a couple more dribble drives, he gets the coveted A+.
Gary Johnson. A. Gary Johnson is going to be a special player if he can continue to build on what he did tonight. Consider this. On one end of the floor GJ would switch onto guards Shipp and Collison with great success. And then on the other end he'd take a 4 like Keefe off the dribble and hit a nice little pull up 15 footer. This sequence of possessions is foreshadowing of what Gary can be as a player. He can guard virtually any player on the floor, and then score on virtually every player on the floor. He also had 5 big boards in just 23 minutes of play. Great game.
Clint Chapman.C. Flashes, that's what Clint showed tonight. He continues to show that he belongs from possession to possession on both ends of the floor, but the second year post man needs to start getting results. Watch the game and you think he's making a bigger impact. Then you look at the boxscore and you see he's 1-7 from the field and 0-4 from the foul line. The potential is there, he just needs some skins.
Pittman. B-. Dexter played well in flashes, but he won't be consistent until there is a concerted effort to enter the post. At the very least, Dex needs to learn how to attack double teams if he wants to take the next step. His big offensive board and a poke, followed by a drop step lay in on back to back possessions showed his potential. It's still only potential, though, and therein lies the problem.
Dogus Balbay. B. DB is a very accomplished on ball defender who seemed to frustate Darren Collison with a combination of strength and quickness. Dogus can be the tip of the spear with his on ball pressure if we want to pressure opposing backcourts. Hell, if he can impose his will against UCLA he can certainly bother lesser guards. Still, the young guy gives Texas very little offensively and there's the rub.
Varez Ward. B+. The true freshman was a vital component in helping to wear down UCLA's backcourt. Varez even showed some ability to break down the defense off the dribble and dropped a nice dime in the second half. The charge call on him was abject bullshit. Blake Griffin couldn't play college basketball if that's a charge.
Coaching. A. Although Rick has some work to do coaching the offensive end, I still think this team is leaps and bounds ahead of where it should be without a true lead guard. If Barnes can somehow get some buy-in from AJ with respect to sharing the basketball without putting a damper on Abrams' shooting confidence, then he's helped this team make huge strides offensively. This team still needs to work on post entry, as it looked like Texas left some points in the paint on the floor tonight, and still settled for way too many jumpers. But, hell, it's December.
Defensively, Rick showed why he's a wizard when he decided to switch guard to guard and guard to forward screens with 5 minutes left to go in the game. Barnes knew that UCLA's backcourt was worn down to the point where they were more likely to settle for jumpers than go to the hole. The benefit was that Longhorn defenders were always in position to contest perimeter jumpers off ballscreens, weakside screens, and kickouts. UCLA's lack of energy to seek and exploit mismatches caused by this indiscriminate switching had been set up by Texas' overwhelming backcourt depth and pressure all game long. And given Texas' athletic advantage on the floor, the risk of not being able to rebound out of mismatches was minimal. Quite frankly this little defensive tweak probably led to a victory.
Great win over a name top 10 opponent. It's a sexy victory that the selection committee pays attention to come tourney time.