On a night in which the Texas Longhorns were honoring their seniors, it was the Longhorn freshmen that kept Texas afloat until its star, J'Covan Brown, finally found his shot. Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman, both program guys for five years, combined for just 37 minutes, 7 points, and 8 rebounds, while their freshmen backups, Jaylen Bond and Jonathan Holmes, totaled 43 minutes, 10 points, and 15 rebounds.
Fellow freshmen Sheldon McClellan drew the start with regular starter Julien Lewis sidelined by a bad back. McClellan started off slowly and was benched twice by Rick Barnes, but eventually found his rhythm en route to a career-high 24 points. Sterling Gibbs, yet another freshmen, showed why Rick Barnes told color commentator Fran Fraschilla that Gibbs is one of the most improved players on this Texas team. He, too, stepped up in Lewis' absence, scoring 8 crucial points off the bench.
And after Brown's cold streak from the narrow Texas Tech victory carried over into the first half against Oklahoma, J'Covan flipped the J'Switch midway through the second half. At the end of the day, it was just J'Covan Being J'Covan: 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists to close out the victory.
In a training session I had this week at work, the presenter used the "leaky bucket" metaphor that I think equally applies to this Texas team. These Longhorns continue to pour talent into the bucket, yet find themselves drilling out just as many holes. It's all about limitations. These are things that have defined Texas' losses, and it's now clearly evident that Texas won't implement fixes this year. We have long known about the two major ones: lack of size and lack of experience. But beyond that, it's other crucial factors that have defined Texas' success (or lack thereof) this year.
The first is poor outside shooting. Oklahoma watched film from the Texas Tech game and liked what it saw. Lon Kruger threw out the 3-2 zone on approximately 75% of its defensive sets. The Longhorns, to their credit, adjusted well after the Tech cluster. Myck Kabongo (9 assists) and Brown (5 assists) were aces at dribble penetrating to the free throw line, causing the defense to collapse and scramble (Reggieball was probably beaming). Texas also used the corner 3 spacing effectively. By passing to the edges of the perimeter, Texas stretched Oklahoma's zone to the limits. It forced the Sooners to bring out a big man uncomfortable defending the perimeter or send a guard beyond his primary space.
The problem, as evidenced by the first 30 minutes of play, is that when Brown isn't on his game, Texas doesn't scare anyone from the perimeter. On the season, the Longhorns are shooting just 33.4% from distance. When that outside shot isn't falling (Texas hit just 1 of 11 in the first half), Texas struggles to manufacture points. That's what makes the development of McClellan so crucial. Every game this year (save one) in which McClellan has had double-digit shot attempts, he's scored double digit points. He has all the tools to be Texas' next great scoring guard.
The second is poor on-ball defense, a trend that's been bothering me the more I watch the Longhorns. Texas fans probably take for granted the past few years: Dogus Balbay, Justin Mason, Avery Bradley, and Cory Joseph were an embarrassment of ball-smothering riches. This year's group is nowhere close. Way too often, the cadre of Brown, Kabongo and McClellan get burned by the opponent off the dribble, forcing Texas' interior defense to collapse and play the ball. It results in way too many easy dimes, and prevents Texas from properly boxing out on defensive rebounds. Julien Lewis is currently Texas' best perimeter on-ball defender, someone that can become an All-American Glue Guy in time, and not having him on the court to help check Steven Pledger hurt.
Almost an off-shoot of the second issue is the third, an inability to prevent opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds. Texas' help defense is very good, both on perimeter ball screens and drives into the paint. Barnes has always been great at teaching that. In conjunction with that size and experience disadvantage, the collateral damage results in a defense that doesn't get back into position to grab defensive rebounds. Hopefully this is something that, in time, we hope to see Holmes and Bond develop, as both have already proven to be good offensive rebounders.
What does this all mean? My position is this: as murky as the remainder of this year may be, the future is bright. But the dichotomy of Texas' upperclassmen, Brown's development versus WangChap's lack of, will be a key replicated storyline in future iterations of the Longhorns.
Simply put, Barnes needs to develop the quartet of McClellan, Lewis, Bond and Holmes. All four have shown flashes of brilliance with clearly defined key strengths. But they're also chock full of weaknesses, and at times exhibit more potential than actual production. Texas fans have seen this before. Dexter Pittman was always a load inside, but never developed a consistent post game. Dogus Balbay was consistently an All-World defender who couldn't hit a jump shot to save his life. Matt Hill came in as Mr. Fundamental and left with no actual ability.
The potential to production gap is what has made this season as frustrating as it has been promising, and maybe I was wrong to a expect shorter-term realization by this March. But if not now, then when? Will it ever happen, or will Longhorn fans be left in a state of constant sorrow?