Due to a confluence of factors--dinner obligations, the devil that is Comcast, and a general unwillingness to watch sports on small-screen ESPN3 (thanks, LHN!)--I've yet to watch a live Texas basketball game this year. Still, by reading the box scores and the team roster, it's pretty easy to gauge what the Longhorns' limitations are. They're not rebounding well because they have no length, they're not defending well because good defense comes with experience (and length!), and they have trouble creating offense because...
Well, actually, they've been pretty brilliant creating offensively. It's early, but here are some choice stats: offensive efficiency of 118.6 is 18th in the nation, eFG% of 55.6 is 43rd, TS% of 60.2 is 20th, Pts per Poss (PPP) of 1.19 is 16th, Pts per Game (PPG) of 87.8 is 10th.
And when I say "they" in the paragraph above, I mean J'Covan Brown. Right now, Brown is playing like a legitimate first team All-American. Through four games, he has put up this slash line: 26.2 PPG / 4.8 RPG / 7.5 APG. His AST:TO ratio is 3.75. He's hit 46.7% from 3 and 50.7% overall. Oh yeah, most importantly: he also has one ejection.
That's ridiculously important because Texas has trouble creating offense when J'Covan is J'Benching. In my basketball SOTU, I wrote this about freshman point guard (and erstwhile savior) Myck Kabongo: "He’s the Horns’ best passing point guard since T.J. Ford, for serious. He’ll also turn the ball over quite a few times trying to force plays, and needs to work on keeping defenses honest by hitting a handful from long range."
So far this year, Kabongo has been a work in progress. He forms a dynamite ball-handling backcourt with Brown, contributing 22 assists to Brown's 30. But young Myck also has 14 turnovers (that's an AST:TO ratio of 1.57) and is shooting just 1 of 7 from downtown, and 32% overall. Instead of hardcore ball-you-man, defenses can sag off Kabongo, cover up shooters and clog the paint. Basically, it's what Texas fans saw with Doge Balbay and Justin Mason running point.
With Kabongo struggling early, the burden of Texas' offense falls on Brown. Almost half of freshmen Julien Lewis and Sheldon McCllelan's shots are 3-pointers (24 of 49 attempts for Lewis, 13 of 29 for McClellan), meaning they're too comfortable spot shooting rather than creating. Our four bigs--Jonathan Holmes, Clint Chapman, Alexis Wangmene, and Jaylen Bond--have combined for 61 field goal attempts. That's 8 less than Brown's 69 (there's a Lexington Steele joke in there somewhere). Besides Holmes, who looks comfortable on the perimeter and will hopefully mature into the next Damion James, there's little offensive skill on the interior. They're all basket finishers, not post creators.
So when Brown does something incredibly stupid like curse in front of a referee and pick up a technical foul that fouls him out of the game with 12 minutes to play, it's not hard to envision the end result is Texas blowing an 18-point lead to a team picked to finish eighth in the ACC.
We'd like to think of this loss as one of those Longhorn-patented "learning experiences". Ideally: take some early season lumps, get better by conference play, and hopefully peak in freakin' March for once. But quotes from this Luke Winn article greatly concern me.
Horns coach Rick Barnes praised Brown's early play but then made a few ominous comments, saying that Brown "has to grow up," and "if he doesn't do what we want to do, we'll move on without him."
Brown was only half-willing to own up to his actions. He said he made a mistake, but was adamant -- despite that he swore within a few steps of a ref -- that he was just scolding himself, rather than regressing into behavior unfit for a team leader. "It wasn't toward the ref," he said, "so I don't think [it means] I've taken a step back."
Because this team is so inexperienced and talent-deficit, Brown in the leader role is critical. Heck, J'Covan may be the most valuable player in the Big 12. I'm not just talking about sheer production, but also the sabermetric adage of "if you replaced player X with replacement player Y, how many wins are you foregoing?" The hair-pulling conundrum for Barnes is that, even with all the freshmen on the roster, the most immature Longhorn may still be Brown.
What you'd have liked to see was Brown accept responsibility for his actions, however slighted he felt. "It was on me. My team needed me, and I let them down. Simple as that." We need that attitude from Brown, not just as our most important player, but as our team leader. It's his time. He needs to take charge.
There's a lot riding on the line. Prior to the season, I thought there was no chance that Brown will test the NBA Draft waters. There's simply not a market for undersized, marginally athletic shooting guards. But if Brown can prove he can play a "lead" point guard role and keep that stat line all year... Well at the very least he'd fit right in to a Golden State Monta Ellis-Stephen Curry type offense. More importantly (for us fans, anyway), a year of top-flight Brown means an actual shot at a conference title, an NCAA berth, and a Sweet 16-type run.
Check out an earlier quote from the Winn article.
Brown put on the best scoring point-guard performance I've seen live in the past week. If that seems like a narrow filter, consider that on Tuesday at the Garden, I caught Seth Curry running Duke, Marquis Teague running Kentucky, and Tyshawn Taylor running Kansas. On Thursday and Friday, same spot, I saw Dee Bost leading Mississippi State and Josiah Turner and Jordin Mayes piloting Arizona. None of them destroyed a defense the way Brown did against NC State, mostly on drive-and-dish plays off high pick-and-rolls -- or, as Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried converted it into culinary terms, "He sliced us up like a side of fries."
That's the Brown we need all season. There's both individual and team glory awaiting Brown if he can grow past second-half, immature J'Covan and stay as first-half, dominant J'Covan. But right now, Texas is staring down the barrel of an NIT season. These are two bad early season losses, and they'll matter in resume comparisons come tourney time. So at the risk of being cheesy, I'll again ask the question we've been asking for the past three years: what can Brown do for Texas?