I believe we can all agree that this is one of the finer Rick Barnes teams we've seen at Texas, although we can't totally judge it against the previous greats before we see the tournament performance. It's important to note here though exactly what the March Madness tournament really is, a wildly entertaining single-elimination tournament geared to produce a champion and more importantly to make piles of money.
It is NOT a rational measure for determining the best team in the country. The more teams that are allowed to play the greater chance there is for one of the stronger teams to slip up, as very few of the truly great NCAA Men's teams will ever be strong enough to navigate six games against quality opponents in a few weeks without dropping one.
Suppose there are 50 teams in a league. Team 1 beats 2-14 and 16-50 almost every time but for whatever reason team 15 is a bad matchup that gets the best of them better than half the time. Now, let's say in a tournament team 1 draws team 15 in the 3rd round after blowing out their first opponent and then winning a grinder in round 2. Team 15 wins the game and team 6 wins the tournament. Who was the best team? Team 6 gets the trophy, Team 15 had the big victory but Team 1 was the best answer for winning games against almost every opponent.
I'm not saying we should scrap the system, I enjoy it as much as the next guy (although the constant inclusion of more teams is a ridiculous measure) but it's important to remember this when measuring team performance. With that in mind I'd like to examine the better Rick Barnes teams and how they were knocked out, not with any hope of finding a common bond between all the teams, because that would likely be a stretch, but just for the fun of it. Who doesn't want to start this thing off by examining the agonizing losses of yesteryear?
The TJ Ford Final Four team.
The starters were PG Ford, SG Ivey, SF Brandon Mouton, PF Brad Buckman, C James Thomas.
Key bench: F Brian Boddicker, F Deginald Erskin, C Jason Klotz, G Sydmill Harris, G Terrel Ross
It's not hard to see why this was our most successful squad, they were loaded. Fantastic bench with shooting and size and a starting five without glaring weaknesses. I loved this team after watching it develop with and without Ford for the previous 2 seasons into this juggernaut. None of the problems that plagued other top Barnes teams were present here, again looking at that roster you don't find much fault with any position. So what went wrong? Basically, Carmelo Anthony.
Melo Stats: 12-19 (3-4 from 3, the team went 7-13 from deep) 33 points, 14 rebounds, 1 turnover, 3 steals.
He demolished us. There was a lot of talk about Ford and co. struggling with the zone and they shot 43% on the day but the far bigger problem was an inability to guard Warrick, McNamara from deep and freaking Anthony who helped Syracuse shoot nearly 60%. The dude was a 6'9" F/G whom we tried to handle with Royal Ivey. Also Ford dropped this line,
3-8, 12 points, 4 rebounds, 13 assists, 4 turnovers.
Not a terrible game but very pedestrian next to what Anthony did for Syracuse. We faced a better player and a better team. I loved that Texas squad though. If you don't recall watching James Thomas or scrappy Deginald Erskin who lost an inch of height every time the announcers discussed the legitimacy of his listed 6'7", to say nothing of the magnificience of Ford and Ivey, then I pity you.
The post-Ford team. Perhaps not a legendary squad but that didn't stop them from drawing a #2 seed and getting Digger Phelps to pick them as his tournament champion.
PG Royal Ivey (not a natural point, he shared duties with Paulino and Moreno) SG Kenton Paulino, SF Brandon Mouton, PF Brad Buckman, C Jason Klotz
Bench: F Brian Boddicker, C James Thomas, G Sydmill Harris, PF PJ Tucker
This team resembled our current squad in that they lacked a true PG but they could guard the perimeter like pros and they were really solid in the frontcourt although Buckman slipped for inexplicable reasons and Thomas seemed to lose his strength Sampson style with the loss of Ford. Really there wasn't a transcendent talent to be seen and they simply scrapped away with their chemistry developed from 3 years together + the explosive addition of PJ Tucker.
Anyways, they ran into Thad Matta's Xavier in the Elite 8 and lost a game in which Craig Way and Rick Barnes both nearly murdered Ted Valentine, particularly after an egregious no-call on a Boddicker 3 late in the game.
The Xavier key was Romain Sato, who shot 17 free throws, made 14 of them, and thus carried the Musketeers to a 79-71 win.
I listened to this game on the radio so someone who recalls it better might chime in but 2 things stand out to me. One, the free throw disparity, Xavier 35-Texas 17, and secondly it appears as though Texas couldn't control the Xavier backcourt but their own size inside was negated by physical Musketeer play as Klotz was 1-10 and PJ 4-10.
This team was probably more talented in the starting five than the 2003 Final Four team but had a few crucial weaknesses.
PG Kenton Paulino, SG Daniel Gibson, SF PJ Tucker, PF Brad Buckman, C LaMarcus Aldridge
Bench: G AJ Abrams, F/C Connor Atchley, F Mike Williams
Point guard, frequently a problem for Barnes teams, was a key weakness here. Paulino could shoot the 3 quite well, and guarded more than adequately, but to call him anything more than an average point guard would be a stretch. Additionally, the bench was virtually non-existent. The rest of the starting lineup was loaded with length and talent though and the 2-3 zone matched the team strengths with the requirement for energy conservation and avoidance of foul trouble.
That said, the way they went down was quite unexpected, to the similarly frontcourt-driven LSU Tigers. Glenn Davis and Tyrus Thomas bulldozed the Texas frontcourt with the following results:
Thomas+Big Baby: 21-33, 46 points, 22 rebounds, 3 turnovers
Aldridge+Tucker+Buckman: 9-34, 27 points, 37 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 turnovers
Aldridge was particularly bad, shooting 2-14 with 4 points and 10 boards. I can't help but think that the advantage in rebounds for Texas was garnered by the 14 offensive ones they recovered after being thwarted in the first attempt.
So, Texas strength matched LSU strength and lost head to head. Gibson played a solid game and the Texas backcourt, while not dominant, held up their end of the deal. Again, just ran into a better team with better players. Tucker and Buckman ended up in NBADL or Europe and Davis and Thomas are in the NBA. Aldridge has done well in the NBA and seen his shots and usage increase this year, giving rise to a mistaken belief that he has become a dominant force, but he was the 3rd best Forward on the court that day.
I liked this team far more than the Aldridge bunch, largely because I had come to know and love Augustin, James, Atchley, Abrams and co. from watching them grow together whereas 2006 came together very quickly from PJ and Aldridge's return combined with Gibson's transition to shooting guard.
The lineup, which we should all remember with ease, went:
PG DJ Augustin, SG AJ Abrams, SF Justin Mason, PF Damion James, C Connor Atchley
Bench: F Gary Johnson, C Dexter Pittman
After besting the Cardinal(s) Lopez twins of Stanford in the sweet 16 it looked like Texas was going to overcome size disadvantages in the tournament while the high screen combo of Connor Atchley and DJ Augustin provided the oil in the Texas offensive machine. From the starting point of the high screen followed the possibilities presented by all five starters having credible 3 point range. They spaced teams out and then cut them to pieces. The defense wasn't shabby either, Abrams and DJ made credible attempts, Mason was a lockdown guy, James rebounded 10.3 per game and Atchley was averaging 2 blocks a contest.
We got a lame draw as a 2 seed and an even worse one with the Calipari Memphis as the opposing 1 seed.
In a blowout most of us would rather forget, Texas again handled the interior size of the opponent well (Dorsey did a little damage, Dozier was useless) but were completely overwhelmed by Memphis' size on the perimeter.
Mason was the tallest at 6-2 and I can vouch as a then UT student that Abrams and Augustin were an inch or 2 south of 6 feet each (although no more than that). Derrick Rose was 6-3, Anderson was 6-6 and Douglas-Roberts was 6-7.
While Memphis wasn't able to beat the hell out of the Texas frontcourt with their forwards, neither were they harmless enough to draw away larger Texas defenders and really there weren't any options anyways. Barnes started 3 guards not because he was loaded with perimeter talent but because the 3 guards he had were amongst the 5 best players on the team. Even leaving Abrams on Anderson, not a premier offensive talent, didn't solve the problem of Augustin guarding either the larger Rose or the much larger Douglas-Roberts. During the game I yelled loudly for a zone to stop the dribble-drive and lend some assistance to the hapless Longhorn midgets trying to handle Douglas-Roberts and Rose but given the way Memphis defended it was really a hopeless cause.
Again, in the matchup of Texas' best vs. opponent's best we were soundly trounced.
The Memphis backcourt went 15-27, 55 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds vs. Texas' 13-42, 40 points, 9 assists, 14 rebounds.
Derrick Rose demolished Augustin with a 7-10, 21 point, 9 assist, 6 rebound game over DJ's 4-18, 16 point, 3 assist, 2 rebound and 4 turnover defeat.
Additionally, the Tigers locked down the high screen with their larger and more athletic defense, shutting down Atchley and allowing their own 50% shooting performance to dwarf Texas' 36.2% effort.
So, if we must conclude anything from the defeat of our best teams it might be to recruit larger perimeter players (Barnes immediately stocked up on such athletes after this loss) but the better answer is to recruit better (and thus likely larger) players period. We haven't really been bested by superior coaching or schemes like Bill Simmons would love to suggest but simply by elite players.
Reviewing the current lineup:
PG Dogus Balbaby, SG Corey Joseph, SF Jordan Hamilton, PF Gary Johnson, C Tristan Thompson
Bench: F Matt Hill, G J'Covan Brown, F Alexis Wangmene, G Jai Lucas
If there's a weakness it's at point guard, but it's important to remember that Dogus can be a tremendous strength in the right style with his elite on-ball defense and box-score stuffing ability. You don't worry as much about athleticism unless a team is large inside with multiple options to shut down Johnson and challenge Thompson to play man on someone worthy of attention. Hello Kansas!
We won't know until we get in a few battles with Arizona, Duke or whomever else but I think this squad is as strong as any other mentioned above save maybe for the Ford team which was deep and virtually complete. Compared to the others I'd put them at Elite 8 or Final 4 but with our draw we could be final 8 or final 4 good but lose in the round of 16 because Duke is that good.
Have we ever beaten them, btw? Last time was close...