As Marques Johnson said 18 times during the telecast, it really was a tale of two halves. Texas came out playing beautiful basketball on both ends of the floor for the first 20 and then held on after UCLA adjusted for a nice signature win in Cali. Big win and huge confidence builder to validate the Tennessee victory that probably has these kids confident they can win the conference. Here's what I think I think:
The man knows quickness when he sees it.
Quickness. I think the Bruins were surprised by the quickness of the Longhorns, as Digger Phelps would say "brought to the table", at every position 1-5. With a pseudo 3 guard offense Texas was able to find good open looks early in possessions which is surprising considering they were facing a Howland coached bunch. I doubt UCLA gives up that many open looks and layups in the next 4 games combined. Consider you had Atchley blow by a center from 17 feet, James do the same to their 4, Mason sharing ball handling responsibilities vs. their 3, AJ occupying their 2 from lending any kind of help, and Augustin absolutely pantsing ultra quick Collison on national TV. Quickness was the theme and the UCLA announcers were astounded by it. Thanks Todd Wright, because these kids, all of them, are much quicker and more explosive than last year.
Defense. What a difference a year makes. There were games last year where it was tough to discern exactly what we were trying to accomplish on the defensive end. Last night's defensive effort, especially in the first half when the team was fresh and energetic, was probably the best it's been in a couple years. We helped aggressively on dribble penetration and recovered quickly and appropriately to shooting threats and non-shooters alike. Marked improvement was shown in defensing the high ball screen with Collison. We hedged aggressively but under control and only gave away one cheap foul by a hedging big. Most of all, the defense didn't allow this simple play to become a staple in UCLA's attack by allowing Collison to turn the corner or find open shooters off of help. Collison's no joke, folks. He brings elite quickness and Augustin and company were up to the task.
Howland makes halftime adjustments.
Rebounding. Surprisingly, we held UCLA and its frontcourt athletes to zero offensive boards in the first half. It's surprising because we sacrificed size for speed on the offensive end, and held our own rebounding the ball defensively. Hell, our quickness helped steal a couple of long offensive rebounds. As the team seemed to wear down in the second half we gave up a couple of tip ins and a couple other offensive rebounds but all in all it was a tremendous effort on the glass. Barnes would take it night in and night out if he could I'm sure.
Depth. I like how Barnes tried to save some of DJ's energy by getting him off the ball with Mason bringing the ball up vs. their 3. When Howland adjusted and pressured this look with Collison, it wasn't as effective but credit Howland for the adjustment. I also liked how we zoned at strategic points in the game to "rest" DJ. Overall, I think the zone got us a draw possession for possession, but it helped conserve DJ's energy which was certainly needed in the last two minutes to win the ball game. In summary, Kudos to Mason for improving his handle, kudos to Barnes for the zone look as a means for resting players, and again, thanks Todd Wright for getting these guys in tremendous shape.
Shot Selection. No 25 foot heat checks from AJ Abrams tonight. That's key. No real forces by Atchley and other supporting players. Again key. DJ had a force or two, but we want him to be aggressive. He may be the best point guard in the nation, and when he's not aggressive, we're not a top 10 team. Only problem I had was with Damion James forcing a few mid-range jumpers. The shots he forced were different than the shots he was hitting earlier in the game. He's got to recognize when a shot comes within the flow of the game and when he's forcing something he just doesn't possess at this time in his career. Without this recognition of what a good shot is, his shooting turns into a game of fool's gold where his line goes from an efficient 5-10 to sub-par 5-13. But other than that, we valued possessions and took good shots and that's how you beat elite teams.
Five passes or five lashes before every shot.
Concerns.Howland and UCLA adjusted to our small lineup offensively by running more motion offense which effectively took possessions deeper into the shot-clock. The strategy gave the Bruins more opportunity to exploit mismatches against our baseline players. It also helped wear down our kids and exploit our lack of depth overall. Had they employed the strategy the entire game, we would have been one tired, foul plagued basketball team. Down the road, look for teams to try do their offensive work wearing the Horns down in a half court setting, and running clock. UCLA did Texas a favor in the first half with their quick shots leading to transition buckets. That's not a good strategy when Texas is quicker at every position on the floor, 1 through 5. When teams pick up on this, guys like Wangmene, Chapman, and hopefully Johnson will be key in giving us not only defensive minutes, but offensive production. Otherwise, Texas will be forced to play alot of zone, which I'm still not convinced we're athletic/big enough to rebound out of against certain teams. Dogus Balbay's injury still looms large with respect to our backcourt. Mason has improved, but I'm not convinced he's a bonafide 2 much less a 1.
In any event, it was a big, big win vs. an elite team on the road. The type of win that a selection committee absolutely covets when considering seeding. If we do any kind of damage in the Big 12, I'm talking a top 3 finish, then a top 3 or 4 seed is a virtual certainty. The way these guys are playing, however, a 1 or 2 seed is certainly a possibility. The Horns just continue to improve night in and night out. Thanks, Rick.