Wow. What can I say? This one hurts. I woke up this morning feeling like Aminu Timberlake's sternum or Tyler Hansbrough's shattered zygomatic arch. I woke up feeling cheap shotted as I'm sure a lot of folks did including the Texas coaches and players. So, the masochist that I am, I rewind the tape this morning and rewatch the traveshmockery that's sure to follow. This is what happened, Larry...
Dexter Pittman starts off the game dominating inside. Why? Because Duke started the ball game as we posited, spreading the floor with their pressure and leaving gaping entry windows and rebounding angles for the USS Pittman. And, after Pittman's dominance becomes apparent, Coach K makes the adjustment to play soft on the perimeter and force the Longhorns, other than AJ Abrams, to be a jump shooting team. Coach K decides to junk up his man principles even further by switching all perimeter screens and exchanges. Afterall, what's the difference between Henderson guarding Mason, Abrams, Balbay, and Scheyer or Smith guarding Mason, Abrams, Balbay? Exactly.
So, boom. Game over. We're going to be held to 60 points, right? Wrong. Enter Varez Ward, a plus athlete with size, a handle, and a credible jumpshooting game. Ward has the kind of skillset that makes you specialize your personnel on defense. If Ward catches Scheyer in a switch he can punish the slower defender who has to respect Varez's ability to shoot, and then we're off to the bucket for a layup, dime, or drawn foul. So Ward, along with Texas' stifling defense allows the Horns to maintain contact with Duke. A minute left in the half and Texas is threatening to cut the ball game to a single possession, post up foul called on Atchley. Huh? Connor Atchley, a kid who hasn't posted up in 4 years, really? This a sign of things to come. Like the shower seen in Psycho, an away from the ball post up foul on Atchley is bad juju. Texas down 7. Halftime.
The second half is more of the same with Texas fighting itself to get clean looks every possession. Outside of Ward and the occasional Abrams tough look, it takes a random cascade of successful albeit minute outcomes in order for Texas to work the ball to a favorable scoring position. Black swan events like a bouncing leather ball properly returning to the pad of Damion James' hand, followed by a chest pass to the wing that avoids hitting Gerald Henderson in the beak, to the rarest of birds the entry pass, culminating in the successful conversion of a two foot layup that has confounded this ballclub for the better part of the season. We get a couple of those, some trash buckets from James and Johnson, and real basketball plays from Ward and Abrams and Texas battles back to tie the ball game with about a minute to go after being down double digits.
Then, metaphorically speaking, Christian Laetner's foot shatters the sternum...no ejection. Gerald Henderson's flying elbow lays open Hansbrough's brow...oops, sorry about that.
With 50 seconds to go in a tie ball game, Texas forces Duke into a tough look and subsequent miss. As the ball is bouncing around on the rim, the whole of Texas' frontcourt is shoved a full two feet by what could only be described as warm pockets of Greensboro air since no whistle was blown and no foul was called. A tip and a miss by Duke and Texas finally pulls the board to close out the possession and play for what very well could be a game winning score with under 20 seconds to go.
Then, like the realization you have suddenly run out of Dos Equis, a foul is called. It's gotta be Duke on the back. Please lord let us hit our free throws. Even if we get one it'll be a crap ton of pressure on Duke. Who's going to the line? Balbay? Please be James. Maybe Johnson, he's knocked a couple down. WWWhhaaaattttt? It's on us. Huh? WTF?
Rabid blue streak of cuss words. Was that the baseline official with a horrible call? Nope. Sideline official with a horrible call? Nine. It's the backcourt official with the worst angle on the play out of the three. Highway f'n robbery. Will my remote control work with a bunch of wires exposed? Is Directv open on Sundays? F' me. They called a foul on us there. Where are the batteries? Under the couch.
Two free throws by Duke.
Texas' next possession is an in and out 3 pointer by James followed by a scramble that leads to a save by Scheyer on a heave down court to no one in particular. Another curious whistle at a critical point in the game. A call you flat out can't make in a big game. A loose ball foul. Horrendous. Texas can't pull a rebound off two missed free throws, Henderson hits his foul shots. Game over.
It hurt as much this morning as it did last night. I feel sick for our players and our staff, but you can't place the blame on the officials. In the context of how the game was being played and called, you have to swallow your whistle on those plays, but by the same token Texas has to hit foul shots. Our point guard can't play scared and turn the ball over 4 times and miss easy layups. And our superstar forward who's ostensibly an NBA player can't have as many turnovers as field goals. Varez Ward and Texas' defense is the only thing that kept this from becoming a double digit blow out. Officiating be damned.
Let's talk players.
AJ really went out with what was a mature performance for a kid that's been criticized for selfish play over his career. He forced some shots, but with the way Duke was smothering our bigs and funneling the basketball to our wings, you couldn't have blamed AJ had he shot the ball 20 times this game. The kid played with extra large juevos pulling 5 boards, playing all 40 minutes, and hitting all of his FT's. The fact that he had zero turnovers and had a team high two assists proves that he wasn't phased by the big stage one iota. A tip of the cap to AJ for a courageous game and a great career.
If this was indeed Damion's last game as a Longhorn, I'd say he'd have to be pretty disappointed. Other than rebounding, it was a sub-standard performance for DJ. He had six horrible turnovers, most of which were unforced, and played unsound defense allowing Singler to get several clean looks. Damion's basketball IQ leaves a lot to be desired and that's something he needs to work on. For a player his size, he's going to have a hard time rebounding his way into the League. He needs to take better care of the basketball and play better defense if he's not going to be a ballhandling 3 in the NBA.
Connor's regression has been the mystery of mysteries. He gave the club nothing down the stretch and it was all capped off by his failure to pull a rebound on a free throw that would have given the Horns one last possession to tie the game. His lack of productivity was a big reason this team didn't meet its own expectations this year.
Again, his fall-off in production has been dramatic and it has spilled over into his defensive play. Once JM was thought of as a fierce lock down defender, and now I'd consider him slightly above average in this respect. He had a tough matchup with Henderson, but he left a lot to be desired on both ends of the floor last night.
Gary is not a player that's going to thrive hunting his own offense as he's currently being asked to do. Johnson is a high energy guy that needs playmakers that can deliver the basketball to him in finishing position. One thing you can't do is question Gary's desire. He leaves it all on the floor if it's Duke or Colorado. Help is on the way for GJ.
Dogus being on the floor, playing from the wing is more indicative of how far Mason has fallen than anything Balbay brings to the table. Offensively, I thought Balbay played scared, lacked poise, and was one of the major reasons Duke was able to take Pittman out of the game. Zoubek can't handle Dex one on one, but give the Duke post help dissuading entry passes with soft wings or one man zones, and Dex can be stopped. It ain't complicated. Doge either needs to be a credible jumpshooting threat or he needs to be surrounded by two or three other credible jumpshooters to be effective. Or he doesn't need to be on the floor. I would have liked for Smith to have gotten a shot at wing when Varez was on the ball down the stretch. But watching Harrison play defense is tantamount to burning my retinas with liquid plumber.
He's the sole reason Texas maintained contact and didn't get run out of the gym. He played confident, fearless offensive basketball and has the skill set to match. Performances like last night are the reason you have to criticize Barnes for ripping kids when they take wide open jumpers in the confines of the offense as was the case when Ward was benched for missing an open 3 vs. OSU. Kudos to Ward for shaking that off and showing up down the stretch and in this tournament. He also provides a glimpse of the future for this program. Jordan Hamilton, Avery Bradley, and to an extent Jai Lucas will bring similar skill sets, and more importantly similar mental makeup. You have to extend your defense against these four players and that will be a boon for Pittman, Chap, and Wangmene. Plus these 4 kids are tough SOB's that won't shrink from pressure situations like the game last night. With Ward in that mix and you have the makings of a tough ass team. Think Michigan State or Bobby Huggins Cincinnati squads with more basketball skill.
The kid has really played well down the stretch this season in limited minutes. If he can emerge from his early season woes to continuing to play well, he'll be a factor as an athletic post on this club. He needs to get stronger and when he does, look out.
Dex being neutralized was bound to happen. He's surrounded by a team of below average shooters, ball handlers, and playmakers. Our perimeter players might be the easiest to guard of the remaining backcourts in the tournament. At times last night, Dex's play reminded me of watching David Robinson when he played at Navy, with 4 defenders no more than 15 ft from the bucket at any given time. We're so frustratingly bad on the perimeter that using this year as a gage for how good Dexter can be probably isn't fair. I can't stress this enough, but Dexter is going to absolutely dominate next year if he doesn't improve one bit from this point forward. If he gets in a little better shape, and adds some polished post moves to his game in the offseason, he's an all-American and a lottery pick. Period.
I've got to give it up for Barnes in the last two ballgames. Inserting Varez and putting him on the basketball to open up the floor really made a difference. I called for it earlier in the year, but my reasoning was more to get Balbay on the wing to mitigate one man zones and force teams to guard the basketball. With Balbay on the wing, we can dictate where on the floor defenses can help from. Plus, if Balbay's setting screens, we can dictate which player Balbay's defender helps to. It's the reason Ward was able to get so many driving lanes to the bucket.
Another reason I'm impressed with Barnes is that I know he was livid. I don't normally complain about officiating, but I think I would have been run had this happened in my kid's YMCA game. With so much on the line, to have those calls go against you has to be tough. Hell, Turgeon got teed up down 20 to UCONN.
Long story long, it was a good year in the context of how badly this team played in stretches during conference play. The good news is the program has some seriously talented answers coming into the fold next season. The team will have well rounded players at virtually all 5 positions and depth to boot. Plus, this will be one of Barnes' tougher teams mentally and physically. It'll be a fun ride, and I'll have my crystal ball preview up in the next day or so. But right now, I've got to get stitches on my Hansbrough eye and air back in my Timberlake lungs.