If you didn’t think the 2011 Texas Longhorns were a Final Four contender after vanquishing the Jayhawks I can understand. If you still don’t think Texas has a great chance to end up in Houston after a dominating performance against a really good Missouri club then you need to have your head examined. Last night’s game should have been a let-down spot for the Longhorns but the Missouri Tigers were but a blip on the train tracks for this Texas club, as they bludgeoned the Tigers on the glass and got virtually any shot they wanted with efficient offense.
As for Missouri’s press, it merely delayed the inevitable point blank bunny or wide open look for the Horns. Mizzou got virtually no points in transition off of their vaunted to press while the Horns didn’t seem to be bothered by the Tigers pressure in the least. What about defense from Rick Barnes' charges? Another smothering, suffocating day at the office.
Had Texas had any kind of success at the charity stripe, the game would have been a twenty point blow-out and more reflective of Texas’ domination last night on the scoreboard.
Some odds and ends before we get to the grades…
Texas continued to run efficient yet diversified offense in the half-court in what I think may have been the Horns’ most impressive offensive performance to date. The flex cut and screen game utilizing Hamilton and Thompson continues to yield terrific shots.
Mizzou had no answer for Hamilton coming off the Thompson screen into the lane as the second year wing found open jumpers and an open Thompson with regularity. I can’t stress this enough but Texas’ strength on offense starts with the mismatch Hamilton poses to most defenses in college hoops. You can count on one hand the teams that have a true small forward who can matchup with Jordan.
To force Mizzou to guard Balbay, Rick used a lot of cross screening action with Balbay on small to big screens. Doge was able to free up Thompson, Johnson, and Hamilton for easy looks mainly because Doge’s man was in no position to help or hedge--also because Balbay is fearless. It takes a lot of courage for a guard to set an affective screen on a post repeatedly. Kudos to Doge for taking more than a couple for the team.
We said in the preview that Texas ballhandlers 1 through 5 would render the Missouri press useless and that ended up being correct. If J’Covan Brown and Doge Balbay weren’t simply breaking pressure with the dribble, a quick reversal to Gary Johnson or Jordan Hamilton leading to a pass over the top of the press did the trick. It helps to have big athletes like Gary Johnson and Jordan Hamilton who can handle the ball and see over the pressure.
We also posited in the preview that a halfcourt to halfcourt affair would favor the Horns and that was certainly the case. It’s been a long time since that could be said about a Rick Barnes’ club but this team is running on all cylinders with its halfcourt offense. We talked about the pseudo flex offense and the block to block cross-screening sets by Balbay, but there’s even more to the Texas attack.
The Horns can iso Hamilton and Brown when there are mismatches, and last night we saw some pick and pop game using Brown and Gary Johnson when the shot clock was winding down. When Johnson is knocking down that little 15 footer off a ballscreen Texas is damn near indefensible. Hell, Anderson turned to a matchup zone for stretches in the second half because his club was absolutely beleaguered by Texas’ diversified attack.
So does that mean teams will now try to run with Texas? Doubtful. How many 4’s and 5’s can get up and down the floor with Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson? And when you go small to pull that off, how many teams have the size at the 3 to get to Jordan Hamilton’s jumper? The answer is not many.
To beat Texas, you need a special blend of outstanding guard play and a big frontcourt. The guard play is necessary to control tempo enough to keep your big frontcourt in the game. The big frontcourt is necessary to beat the Horns on the glass keeping them out of transition and Gary Johnson off the floor as a four. Then you have to hope Jordan Hamilton doesn’t go bananas. The teams that fit this bill are Pitt and UConn and that’s about it.
On to the players…
Jordan Hamilton. A+. I felt going in that Hamilton would be the MVP of this game because the Tigers have no answer for the talented small forward and this ended up being the case. Jordan did a wonderful job of moving without the ball in the halfcourt and getting a lot of good looks. When he drew Mizzou help, he had a few great finds for easy buckets. It’s time we stopped viewing Hamilton as just a scorer, because now that he’s getting all-he-can-eat shot attempts, he's becoming more of facilitator.
On the glass Jordan is probably the team’s best rebounder based on the position he plays. He’s got a rare combination of strength, length, and understanding of angles to dominate the glass on both ends. It also helps that he’s unencumbered by his matchup meaning Hamilton is almost always rebounding against either a slower or smaller opponent. To sum it up, Jordan’s 16 point 13 board 5 assist performance is, in a word, RIDICULOUS.
Cory Joseph. A. If Jordan Hamilton isn’t the most complete player for the Longhorns then Joseph certainly is. In fact, I’d love to call Cory Joseph a "glue-guy" but he’s much too talented for that. You don’t usually encourage glue-guys to hunt their offense. Speaking of which it was good to see Joseph looking for his shot a lot more this game which included a couple of slashing drives when the defensive perimeter shell had broken down. Defensively, Cory did a terrific job on Mizzou’s best scorer Marcus Denmon holding the talented to guard to just 3-9 from the field.
Tristan Thompson. B. The first year post once again dominated the paint and the glass. When Thompson’s allowed to play the other team’s second best frontcourt player he’s hell on wheels, but I thought he did a great job on Ratliffe even before Coach Barnes went to Hill and Wangmene to guard Missouri’s best post. I was also excited by Thompson’s aggressiveness attacking the Missouri interior, but obviously the elephant in the room there is the more you attack the more foul shots you’ll get. TT was a woeful 3-9 from the stripe and that can’t happen against good teams because it’ll bite us.
One funny anecdote from the post-game comes from a friend of mine who was able to speak with Thompson. He asked Thompson if he’d come back for one more year to make a run at a Championship and Tristan replied, "One more year? Man, I’ve got three more years." Sure you do Tristan.
Dogus Balbay. A. Rick Barnes has made some tweaks to make teams play Dogus honestly in a halfcourt and the results have been great. Using Doge off the ball as a screener, cutter, and sometimes post-up player is genius, but credit Balbay for being more of a threat off the dribble when teams do play him or when we’re in transition. He’s got all the athletic ability in the world to threaten the cup in the right situations, he just needs to be more assertive. Defensively, Doge was once again his solid self, giving Dixon fits and containing the talented Phil Pressey.
Gary Johnson. B+. Once again, in the preview we said we thought Gary would have a bigger impact on the glass and the offensive end than he’s had in recent games because Mizzou has posts of similar size. When Gary plays against guys who don’t dwarf him he’s hell on wheels offensively and on the glass and last night was no exception. Where Gary becomes limited is when the opposition rolls out a big 4 and 5 like UConn or Carolina.
If Gary is able to stay in the game based on the proper matchups, he makes the Horns a much more dynamic offensive team with his ability to not only attack the paint, but more importantly step out and hit the 15-18 footer. With Gary on the floor, the Horns can pick and pop or use Gary to lift help away from Thompson and Hamilton, giving defenses another mismatch headache to deal with.
J’Covan Brown. D. The stat line from Brown was okay, but his body language on the floor and on the bench was just atrocious, hence the poor grade. Brown can’t pout when he’s pulled, and then make matters worse by essentially telling Chris Ogden to "fuck-off" when the Longhorn assistant is trying to console him. You don’t do that in any game, especially when your team's enjoying a huge win. Selfish stuff from Brown.
Matt Hill and Alexis Wangmene. B. These guys played their roles perfectly once again. Come in and guard the other team's best big to allow Thompson to roam the paint is precisely what these guys need to give us. Rebounds, points, steals and blocks are just gravy. Mizzou’s frontcourt isn’t big enough to have made WangHill a vital part of the game plan but the duo did their job once again.
Rick Barnes. A+. He’s your National Coach of the Year at this point in the season. In fact, I’d argue this is one of the best coaching jobs in recent memory. When you consider the youth on this squad and the absolute transformation of the program’s offensive identity in a few short months it at least has to be considered the best coaching job we’ve seen at Texas.
In terms of pushing buttons, Coach Barnes is absolutely on fire. From the KU game to the stuff we used against Missouri, Rick Barnes has his team firing on all cylinders. As for understanding his squad, there’s not a coach in America that has a better pulse on his club, and that includes greats like Bill Self, Coach K, Thad Matta, or any other coaches of top programs. For as much as Rick was maligned for last season’s debacle, he deserves as many pats on the back and attaboys as we can give him this season.