Okay, before I get started, let the record reflect that I realize this was a win vs. a mid-major with little tradition, in Austin. Ho-hum right? Wrong. In the context of the season, this was as close to a must win game as a game in January could be. Consider Texas had lost two out of three, which were all disappointing performances to be sure. Couple that lack of momentum with a team trying to relearn its identity by meshing the highly touted post player Gary Johnson with an established group and you can imagine how a good team like the Gaels could come in and steal one. And make no mistake about it, Saint Mary's is a very talented and underrated basketball team with just the right balance of interior and perimeter scoring to give the Horns fits in a half court setting. And if I told you the Gaels would have bludgeoned the Horns on the glass in the first half, an upset would have seemed even more plausible. But thankfully this was a tale of two halves much like the UCLA game.
The First Half
Once again Texas came out as lethargic as it had in its last two home games against Wisconsin and TCU. Perhaps it was a function of the new starting lineup that included newcomer Gary Johnson and players having to relearn their roles. Perhaps it was the names on the front of the Gaels' jerseys that made the Horns seem disinterested on the defensive end of the floor, not getting out on shooters and failing to rebound the basketball. Whatever the cause, the Gaels shot a torrid 8-18 from beyond the arc and at one time were outrebounding the Horns by double digits. Not good.
It also didn't help that Texas was beaten on seemingly every loose ball and long rebound which adds credence to the theory thatTexas simply was overlooking its opponent. Again, that's bad.
But there were two first half bright spots that kept the Horns in the lead and in control. First, DJ Augustin's utter and complete destruction of his highly touted couterpart, Gael point guard Patrick Mills. DJ was able to get into the paint on the dribble at will and showcased a variety of midrange scoring moves that perplexed the Gael's talented guard.
In addition to great guard play, Damion James continues to blossom into a bonafide 3-man with efficient shooting on the perimeter, even showcasing a couple dribble drives to the goal that we haven't seen thus far. If he continues this improvement trend at the small forward position, he's going to make himself a ton of money in a year or two.
Overall, Texas was able to close the rebounding gap before the half, and did a much better job of contesting shots to go in with a 42-36 lead at the break, after a playing a half of basketball that could have been much, much worse on the scoreboard. Up six at the break. Not good, but not all that bad.
The Second Half
In the halftime lockerroom speech, Pete Carril would have calmly advised the Longhorns to play with a bit more vigor. Bobby Knight would have questioned DJ Augustin's ability to lead a whore into bed. I suspect Rick Barnes' speech was somewhere in between, but whatever was said it worked. The Longhorn's came out pressuring and contesting shots defensively at a level not seen all season. Now part, if not most, of defensive aggressiveness is desire and want-to, but a good portion comes from personnel and ability. But I'll get to that in a minute.
The Horns came out and played their best defensive basketball of the season in holding an offensively balanced Gaels team to 26 points and less than 30% shooting in the second half. Great, great team defense. On offense, Johnson provided a low post threat and a weak side rebounding threat netting 15 points for the game, on efficient 7-10 shooting, with 5 man-sized offensive rebounds.
DJ Augustin continued his destruction of Mills while running the show efficiently finishing the game with 30 points on 11-22 shooting, and turning the ball over just once the entire game. He's the best pure point guard in the nation, folks.
Overall, it was probably the best half of team basketball played all year, which can be attributed to the personnel changes with the addition of Gary Johnson. If this version of the 2007 Longhorns improves like I think they can, they'll be a much better team than the one that beat UCLA a few short weeks ago.
What the Personnel Changes mean
The addition of Gary Johnson on the defensive end gives the Longhorns so much more versatility and flexibility in how they attack offenses when compared to 3 guard personnel, and not just from an individual match up perspective. The obvious difference is size, in that Texas no longer has to help to the Mason vs. small forward matchup. This should help conserve the energy of guys playing huge minutes like Augustin and especially Damion James who probably felt like he was playing 1 on 2 in most games this year, since he spent most defensive possessions providing help. Now players like James can focus on playing sound man without having to keep one eye on helping an outmanned teammate. This is such a huge difference in that the player can stay in sound rebounding position which conserves a ton of energy.
Look for James' rebounding numbers to go up now that he can concentrate on weakside rebounding since Texas has a legit post player at the 4.
Look for Connor Atchley's play to improve knowing that more help can be allocated to his matchup. That means more 3 quarter fronts and full fronts to dissuade entry passes, which is a luxury he didn't have with Mason in the game. He almost exclusively had to play behind players knowing backside help wasn't coming.
More switching. We saw more switching in the St. Mary's game when Johnson and James exchanged players on several set plays. And why not since they are basically the same defensive player? Lou Henson's late 80's Illinois teams were hellish defensively because everyone on the floor was between 6'4" and 6'8" and could guard every position on the floor. It absolutely gives motion teams and teams that run a lot of sets fits, and we have a mini-version of that now with Johnson and James.
Less Zone. While I think we'll see some zone, it won't be relied upon nearly as much to steal minutes as it was earlier in the year when we were trying to hide Mason. And that's a good thing because our zone really inhibits our ability to control tempo and maximize our speed and quickness advantage against teams. If we can pressure more we can create more transition offense and easy baskets. It's as simple as that.
Gary Johnson now gives a legitimate post presence as well as a huge rebounding force on the offensive end that defenses need to account for.
"Obviously, this is the first time all year we've been able to post the ball with confidence," Barnes said. "He gives us a presence."
That says it all. Teams up to this point could switch and help without regard for mismatches that defensive rotations create. It's the reverse form of the Illinois example I used above. When every player on the floor poses the same threat offensively, then helping and switching isn't as potentially punitive. Johnson gives defenses pause when switching or overhedging our high screen by the mismatch he creates on the offensive glass. That's a threat that's there as soon as he steps on the floor. And based on the improvement we've seen between games 1 and 2, Johnson's offense generated from the low block will be a huge threat in no time as he continues to improve.
Additionally, his presence should open up driving lanes for DJ, perimeter opportunities for Atchley and James, and as Gary's low post presence starts to require help, more open looks for Abrams. Teams weren't worried about helping these facets of the Texas offense, knowing recovering to Justin Mason wasn't of utter importance. So you help from Mason's position, and make him knock down a couple shots before you rethink things.
With Johnson, if you help and don't recover quickly and effectively, you give up an easy entry pass and a dunk. Or an easy offensive rebound and a dunk. Those are easy to "knock down" when you're a 6'8" glass eater with freakishly long arms and hops.
In a nutshell, Gary Johnson and the last half of the Saint Mary's game should get Longhorn fans excited about the future. It gives the team a new identity and new flexibility to attack opponents both on the offensive and defensive ends. And the best news is the Horns will get better and better as Johnson gets better and better. The flexibility comes when the Horns want to go 3 guard in certain game situations and/or team matchup situations. It's very exciting and Rick Barnes seems to agree.
"It might be the best team win we've had all year," Barnes said. "We've got a chance to have a heck of a basketball team."
It was. And you do, coach. Nice work.