The finality of the NCAA tournament is as painful as a kick in the Onions!
Especially when the elimination game comes down to one possession. Unfortunately, because I’m a Texas fan, the manner in which the Horns were eliminated wasn’t all that surprising. In live game situations, it’s usually a coin flip that we’ll make the correct play.
And we already erred by calling a timeout when all we needed to do was run clock and ice the game at the foul line. Now I realize that pundits, fans, and prognosticators often bend hindsight to further their agenda after the ballgame, but I have a witness who will attest to the fact I knew a clusterfuck was about to ensue just after the fateful Jordan Hamilton timeout.
I had the pleasure to watch the game with the venerable “Bob In Houston”, who happened to be “Bob Just Outside the Beltway” as we were watching this heartbreaker. So right after the timeout, I turned to Bob, dodged the spittle and invectives flying from his mouth because he too knew our fate, and said, “Watch, we’re going to fuck this up. I’d lay two to one odds that the in-bounder is going to run the baseline like we’re inbounding off a made bucket.” Regrettably, I was only partially wrong, and so was the result. From Jordan Hamilton running away from the ball to J’Covan Brown tripping and the quick five second count out of a PAC-10 official which seemed to be an egregious make up call from the non-foul call the play before -- ALL PARTIES WERE AT FAULT -- players, staff, and referee; but only one party paid the price—anyone affiliated with the Texas Longhorn program.
Both great descriptors of the last play to be sure, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter on the micro level as far as this game is concerned, nor the macro level when viewing the season as a whole. In my final post mortem, I’ll try to dig a little deeper for some answers. I can’t guarantee they’ll help you sleep better at night, sheer boredom notwithstanding, but perhaps they’ll help you deal with why you should be upset and even why you shouldn’t be.
The Game Plan
This game reminded me of the Holiday Bowl against Washington State. You know the game where the Cougars blitzed the hell out of Vince Young which lead to his benching and Greg Davis’ post game press conference whopper, “We didn’t anticipate they’d blitz so much.” I’ll tell you what, if I’ve got a super star center with a history of foul trouble and he’s going up against another superstar center I damn sure don’t leave my guy on an island. So it stands to reason that Coach Miller was going to send double teams at Thompson to help Derrick Williams. The answer to this seemingly confounding hoops equation doesn’t rise to the difficulty of chaos theory, or balancing Huckleberry's checkbook. In fact, you beat it with alignment, cutting, and a dash of patience; things that can easily be installed in a couple of walk-throughs.
Our answer? 25 first half points, followed by J’Covan going nuts in the second half—in other words, no adjustments. There’s no reason a lottery pick talent like Thompson can’t get double digit points against an interior sieve like the Arizona Wildcats. But that assumes a) you can get him the ball, and b) he knows what to do when the inevitable double team arrives. There’s no reason you can’t run reliable offense through a player of Thompson’s caliber knowing where and when doubles are coming from. The weak side perimeter should be open every time and Jared Sullinger isn't the only big man that can execute the kick out even if he's damn good at it.
For me that’s where I fault the staff. It’s not one play here or there, it’s the lack of any counters to what the other team is certain to do. It's basic scouting and gameplanning. It's why Brad Stevens takes Butler on deep tourney runs more often than not while Texas has shit the bid prematurely for three years in a row with rosters that fill out current and future NBA depth charts. Rick Barnes is getting fileted in the press, on message boards, and probably even at home. A lot of that is justified but if you think Deloss Dodds has even considered picking up the phone to put out some feelers then you probably also look to Kirk Bohls for breaking news, or the online blogging community for marital advice. And you've just gotten used to being disappointed.
Yes, I enjoyed watching Notre Dame lose to Florida State just so another recognized fan base could experience our pain, as Pitt did the day before. But that shared sense of commiseration is fleeting. I'd rather be gamplanning for Duke.
By reaching out to other guys smarter than he is, Barnes made some noted offseason adjustments that put our team back on track for three quarters of a season. But the man has no antidote for short term adversity, nor does he possess the in-game coaching chops to outscheme a quality coach. And I'm not calling Drunk Jimmy Kimmel a high caliber coach. He's active, he sweats a lot. So did Bruce Pearl. But he did enter the game with a better plan than Barnes and he worked the refs effectively. So Rick, maybe work the whistles down the stretch if it's working for the other guy? You never know when it may pay dividends. Suddenly four seconds may just turn into five ... it's a strange world like that.
I actually see what we were trying to do here. There’s a better than average chance that Tristan comes down with that board, so to preempt a missed foul shot, Rick calls for the timeout. That’s defensible even though I don’t agree with it in that situation. A smarter coach can play an if/then type of strategy with respect to timeouts, but perhaps Rick didn’t trust his players. If Tristan or Doge gets the rebound, call timeout. If it’s anyone else, let them foul you. That seems like something our guys could execute, no? Instead you have Jordan Hamilton and Gary Johnson calling a collective timeout. Thankfully we didn't get charged twice for that. It would have been a turnover. Wait, that's coming!
The Inbounds Play
I hate that it was designed to be J’Covan or nothing, unless Hamilton was supposed to show to the ball as a second option. If it’s the latter, then the only thing to fault Barnes on is how Jordan is coached in that situation. If Hamilton pisses himself at the thought of shooting a big shot, then that’s a whole other problem. Otherwise, it’s a design issue.
As for the five second count call, it’s one of the worst calls I’ve seen in my 35 years of watching college hoops. I saw Georgetown’s Michael Jackson grab a Villanova player in the championship game and pull that player to the ground to simulate a charge and the referees called it a play-on when it should have been a foul. Other than that, I can’t think of a call in the same hemisphere as the four second count in terms of being blown.
The final shot was a microcosm of our season as it relates to J’Covan’s play and minute distribution. Brown loafs it up the court, has the insane ability to still create a good look as three defenders converge (and foul), misses an open Gary Johnson for an easy dime, and then doesn’t get the call. I blame our staff for not finding a way to give Brown more ownership of the point guard duties just after the KU game when his confidence was sky high. Had he been playing 25 minutes a game down the stretch, there’s a good chance he sees Johnson for the easy dime and dunk. Hell, he looked like one of the best guards in the tournament in the second half of yesterday’s contest.
On the flip side, I blame Brown for having the demeanor to loaf the ball up the court to begin with. His attitude is a big reason he didn’t get big minutes sooner which cost the team a seed-line or two and perhaps the continuity that would have made yesterday’s game a blowout had he been getting starter’s minutes the last two months.
I just looked at the last play again and holy hell Johnson was wide open. That’s a play an everyday point guard makes and one Kabongo won’t miss next season. Put away the breakables then check out the 2:35 mark.
A Quick Look at Next Season
Operating under the assumption that Thompson comes back next season, which seems possible if not probable at this point given the way this one just finished paired with Tristan’s desire to play alongside Kabongo, I’d say we’re in for a helluva ride. Kabongo has the ability to impact the program much the same way TJ Ford did as a catalyst and he’ll have a better supporting cast of finishers and scorers than Ford did. He’s the kind of kid that can get a shot for himself or teammates in virtually any situation which is good if you put him on the floor with guys like Joseph, Brown, and Thompson. If Hamilton comes back, the talent is elite and it's a Final Four lineup, Rick Barnes and Jim Burr be damned. We’d look like one of Roy Williams Carolina teams where Huckleberry Hound would just roll out the ball and win games. If we failed to implement an up-tempo pace with this group, I’d be close to done with the staff.
That typed, our offensive woes would be a thing of the past. We’d so thoroughly spread the floor with this group that you’d almost have to zone just to be able to get to all the shooters without giving up penetration at will. Defensively, the Horns would have to mix and match personnel against some of the bigger frontcourts in conference, which is why the speedy development of Wangmene and Chapman into bona fide rebounding/trash bucket role players is so important. Kevin Thomas is another intriguing player as a hybrid wing but he’s got to get stronger. One of these two scenarios would have to work against teams that could punish our three guard look.
At the end of the day, this season could have been so much better had J’Covan Brown taken the reins as a the team’s lead guard early in the season. Conversely, the year could have been so much worse had we not had Coach Barnes instilling a toughness on the defensive end and some wrinkles on the offensive end that vaulted this young squad into the championship hunt. Barnes' deficiencies as an offensive coach and manager of in-game situations are well chronicled, but he’s got a recipe for fool-proof Barnesian success coming in—a playmaking point guard. If the right people come back, there’s no room for excuses the next go round.
The 2012 Final Four is in New Orleans, the site of our deep run in 2003. Just sayin...