We couldn't have done it without Ed Hightower. Thanks Ed.
That over-officious buffoon rolled up in his black and white striped clown car, slapped his size 19's on the Erwin Center floor and proceeded to do his typical "I'm Part of the Game" asshattery including but not limited to chatting up coaches while the ball was in play and calling two /Bill Walton voice/ HORRIBLE /Bill Walton voice/ offensive fouls against Dexter Pittman, insuring our best answer to an ugly halfcourt style affair would be a non-factor in a pretty damn important basketball game. But again, thanks Ed. We wouldn't have been able to find out how truly dynamic this Texas team is without your officiating faggotry, Mr. Red Nose.
Ed's antics aside, what a tremendous win for the program, a tournament caliber win as srr50 aptly calls it. Lose your best weapon, play a style you're not entirely comfortable with or accustomed to, against a seasoned group of talented, well coached basketball players, and still get the W going away. Damion James was a man amongst boys again, and we, gasp, ran offense through him. Maybe coming back was a good idea. And Gary Johnson, the kid with a heart bigger than his own game or skillset, looked like an elite hybrid 3 out there on both ends of the floor at winning time. Big steals, big boards, and silky smooth offensive game for the player that people endearingly call spastic. What a showing. What a time to show. And finally the young backcourt of Balbay, Bradley, Hamilton, and Brown. They grew up a bunch last night, playing the best defensive team they'll likely see this year. Outside of their own practices that is. Let's discuss.
In the UNC post mortem I declared that Damion James played his best basketball game in a Longhorn uniform. Scratch that. After last night, the UNC battle was his second best. Against the Spartans, he was left on his own to battle MSU on the glass after Pittman was saddled with foul trouble, and James was up to the challenge pulling 13 boards. Even more impressive than his glass work, however, was Damion's transformation into an offensive catalyst right before our very eyes. He took bigger forwards to the rack, showed feathery touch on midrange jumpers, and even created some shots as shot clocks wound down. The game film alone probably netted him a dozen draft slots and millions of dollars. Just a virtuoso performance from the heart and soul of this basketball team.
It's a shame we couldn't see Big Dex physically overwhelm a woefully undersized Michigan State frontcourt, but in the long run, Pittman's absence was probably good for this basketball team. Had the big man been allowed to play, Texas likely wins the game by 20 because the Spartans had zero answers for Dex. Would it have been nice to see us run high ball screen dives to the post sets with a bunch of shooters on the floor? Sure. If they work with Matt Hill in the game, they would have certainly worked with Pittman. Again, some folks just can't swallow their whistle, but Texas is a better team for it.
J'Fearless. Not the best stat line he'll have all year, but his 3 ball and reverse layup came at crucial points in the game when State had small leads and Texas was trying to make its run. I liked that Barnes is starting to trust him in the screen and roll game as well. Flank him with two shooters, run the high screen with Dex, and then have the big man dive to the goal. This set alone is good for 10 buckets a game and would have been a staple of our halfcourt offense against State had Pittman stayed in the ball game.
Along with baklava, you're going to find pieces of Larry Drew and now Kalin Lucas in Doge's stool. Balbay keeps going up against elite point guards and making them look like they can't play. I've told the story before, but prior to his 9 knee surgeries, Randy Livingston so thoroughly dominated Jerry Stackhouse in an AAU tournament game that an NBA scout left the building that night wondering aloud if Stackhouse would be worth a shit at the college level. I wonder if Balbay is creating the same perception about the players he destroys defensively. On offense, Balbay turned in a masterpiece. Six big assists and no turnovers, coupled with his aggression in attacking the basket is perfect for this club. Come in and lock down the opposing point guard on defense, distribute and attack the rim in spots on offense. That's all we need out of Doge.
This is why it is galactically stupid to give up on a singular talent like Hamilton after one bad performance. Not only is the kid the best pure shooter on the ballclub, but he's probably the third best rebounder and third best ballhandler and your only true 3 man. Without Jordan's 4-6 from deep, I'm not sure Michigan State gives up the lane to guys like Bradley, Balbay, and James as much as they did. If Jordan continues to learn what a good shot is vis a vis time and score and in the context of what is going on in the basketball game, he's going to be fine. Kudos to Barnes for being patient and realizing the kid hasn't had a whole lot of coaching in this department. And mark my words, when Jordan starts to get it, he's going to reward this program with some explosive offensive performances.
I thought Avery deferred a bit too much in this game but I'm sure the coaches will take the 4-7 efficiency when considering the defensive effort the young guard turned in. But as I posted in the Carolina write up, this team is a better club when Avery is shooting the ball 15 times per game. He's just too talented to give away field goal attempts to anyone else on the roster.
It's obvious that Rick trusts Gary, and Gary rewarded that trust with 3 or 4 huge plays down the stretch. Johnson's emergence gives Rick one more matchup weapon as a hybrid 3 or 4. He also gives the Horns frontcourt depth we can lean on if and when we decide to place a fullcourt pressure arrow in the quiver.
Not a good matchup for Alexis considering MSU is a team that's going to run motion and place a premium on a defense's ability to help and recover. Wangmene is not a very good help and recover big at this point in his career. He's much better suited to play in an up and down tempo ball game so he can use his length and athletic ability to block shots and pull boards. If Lexi is forced to play position defense for long stretches, invariably he's going to be caught out of position and it'll lead to driving angles and post entry angles for the opposition.
One comment on the senior and I'll leave it at that. My only problem with Barnes current rotation strategy is how Mason is used. We've already talked about how it doesn't make much sense to play him with another non-shooter like Balbay but I'll expand on that even further. If you're worried about Pittman playing limited minutes due to conditioning or foul trouble, why would you risk wasting those precious minutes playing a source of help like Mason along side Dex? Why not play Mason when you're going small, or you're in some sort of pressure package? I think it's an inefficient use of resources.
I think Clint could be in store for more minutes. He came in and played confidently which is really the only missing piece for the young man.
I thought Jai played decently. He showed his true value which is spreading the floor with the threat of his jump shot. For that reason I'd like to see him off the ball in halfcourt sets, letting Brown do all the heavy lifting of ballhandling and creating help. Jai's at his best when he's catching and shooting and defenders are running at him. Defensively, he'll struggle against bigger ballhandlers that can knock him off the ball.
Overall it was a chameleon-like win for the Horns. We proved we can win a halfcourt scrum without our big pivot horse. We've now shown we can win any style ballgame against any and all comers and in adverse situations. Even better news is that our ceiling is still pretty high. We've yet to play our best game and we're still running fools out of the gym or banging them into submission. Wait until we shoot it well, and yes, I mean from the foul line as well.