It's tough to find fault with a win that gave the Horns their third conference title in the Rick Barnes' era but the Horns' limping across the finish line Sunday afternoon should be cause for concern. I know, any kind of win is alright, but the last three offensive outings for the Longhorns have been downright offensive. In a game that included one of the worst overall shooting efforts the team has posted all season long, the Texas Longhorns needed stifling defense, timely shooting, and some home cooking to overcome shooting just 34% from the field. Luckily they got all three in holding the Cowboys to 34%, a clutch bomb with a minute to go by AJ Abrams, and 29 foul shots to the Cowboys' 10. A win is a win, and this one was big clinching a share of the Big 12 Championship and keeping the Horns in the hunt for a 2 and maybe even a 1 seed if the chips fall just right. The sputtering offense is a concern and I feel it's the combination of the following 3 issues:
Tired Legs. It's tough to be "on" for an entire conference season when you're a big dog. That's why Hillary Clinton looks the way she does. On one hand you're getting the other guys' best shot night in and night out. Do you think teams get up for Colorado every night? On the other you're competing for a championship, seeding, rankings, you name it, on a nightly basis. You don't get a chance to have an off night because so much is at stake. Do you think the kids at Cal Poly have the same sense of urgency to be on every night? You're seeing these two factors as well as fatigue in general start to weigh on some kids that get 35+ minutes a game. You saw Abrams, Atchley, and James with a bad case of tired legs today. The good news is that it's nothing a week off and a non-conference tournament opponent can't fix.
Tired as an AJ Abrams jumper.
Lack of an interior presence. When you are a perimeter oriented team your points in the paint come from driving and cutting. When you face a team that can guard the perimeter like the Cowboys and take away slashing to the goal, you better be hitting jumpshots or getting to the foul line. Luckily we got to the foul line. If anything, today's game shows that Texas needs some kind of post up points in the paint and more specifically players that can score with their backs to the goal. It would be the perfect antidote for AJ Abrams cold shooting and DJ's inability to get clean driving lanes to the goal, if Gary Johnson, Dex Pittman, or Clint Chapman could collapse a defense simply by receiving a ball on the low block. It would lead to kickouts for open threes and helping defenders running at shooters leading to blow by's by Augustin, Mason, or James. Without any post presence, we were vulnerable to a defensive team like OSU, which leads to the third factor...
The Matchup. The Cowboys are a horrible matchup for the Longhorns from an offensive standpoint. They have good on ball defenders like Eaton and Dove. They start 4 guards which are all long and athletic with the exception of Eaton. Think late 80's Illini teams with Battle and Liberty. So Eaton can take away easy penetration by DJ, their length and quickness make wing denial especially effective, and since they're all essentially the same defender, they can switch screens and exchanges without fear of any real punishment, especially knowing Texas has virtually zero low block threat. That's why we saw some Dove on Augustin, Eaton on Atchley/James, etc. When you can't penetrate to create help, when you can't screen to create it, and you have zero post presence to collapse a defense, you have to hit contested shots. Which we did...at a 34% clip. Thank goodness there aren't but one or two tourney teams that will deploy the Cowboy's type of personnel, and certainly none that have the benefit of the Cowboys' familiarity of the Longhorn's offense. Still, we need some block presence.
Again a big win, but hopefully its struggles don't portend of bad things to come. On to the grades.
DJ Augustin. B+. What a luxury it is to have a super star lead guard. When every thing gets bogged down and you need a big shot without having to run through all the machinations to find an open shooter, a point guard that can create his own shot and shots for teammates is worth his weight in gold. We flat out get run out of the gym if DJ shoots it like early February DJ. The 5 turnovers are tough to swallow, but refer to the "matchup" paragraph above. OSU's perimeter D is tailor made for Texas and DJ was pressured all day, but he responded with 20 tough points eventhough nearly every shot was contested.
Damion James. A.Sure Damion had some bad plays leading to 3 turnovers and a couple ill-advised attempts (fading away with Eaton on your hip comes to mind), but 18 boards is titan-like. Dude wouldn't have looked any more like a warrior had he run onto the floor dressed like a stand-in from the movie "300". Great game on the defensive end as well blocking 3 shots.
Damion prefers to rebound in the shade.
Connor Atchley. C-. Make that 3 subpar offensive games for Connor. Don't worry, though, CA's got a classic case of tired legs with all he's asked to do for this team. Defend bigger players, rebound, screen, and make 20 footers. Loved the sweeping hook, but we dearly miss him being a viable deep threat. When he hits from there we're very tough to zone, and guard on the perimeter. I was also dissapointed he couldn't take more advantage of mismatches on the low block.
AJ Abrams. B-. Another victim of dead legs, but again his clutch 3 saved our bacon when the game was on the line. It takes a pair that clanks when you're 0 for 6 from deep, 2-12 overall, and still have the cajones to jack up a 3 with a conference championship on the line. The kid also defended his heart out against a bunch of slashers that are a head taller than him. His shot selection left a little to be desired, but most of the shots tonight were contested. What AJ needs is some rest and the occasional kick out from a post man.
Justin Mason. A.Clutch foul shooting, 2 bombs, 7 boards, and tenacious on ball defense is all you ever get from this kid. He had a hard time running point today because OSU is so good at pressuring the ball, but he contributed like he always does, stuffing the stat sheet. It's nice to see him getting his 3-ball stroke before the tourney.
Gary Johnson. B. I'm still wondering why Gary didn't receive more floor time. He provided the only bonafide low post threat and OSU always had a player on the floor that he could guard. Perhaps Rick isn't comfortable with Gary's ability to recognize a double team or his ability to pass the basketball. There's nothing like real game action to tell for sure, however. It would have been nice to see 4 or 5 possessions with the sole purpose to establish him down low.
Wangmene. B. Two minutes. One board. Weird. We can zone to hide the kid if that's an issue, but I think we missed a real opportunity to take advantage of his athleticism rebounding the offensive glass. I still have images of Taylor Griffin and Longar Longar hitting OSU over their collective heads and dragging them off by their hair to the Sooner cave.
Clint Chapman. B+. See the Wangmene comment and I'll raise you a legitimate post move and an unblockable turnaround ten footer. Just weird that he doesn't get more minutes in a game in which the rest of the team shoots 30%. I think Rick might have gone a bit too conservative with so much on the line. Still, this kid oozes offensive talent. His activity on the back line of our zone was also impressive.
Pittman. Incomplete. I thought I saw Tommy Penders, Jr. whispering to him during timeouts.
Hey Dex, how 'bout a Big Mac?
Coaching. B+. It's tough to give a legit candidate for coach of the year anything but an A after clinching a conference championship, but I'm going to because I'm pissed at the world for having to suffer through an Indiana/Penn State overtime costing me 5 minutes of game coverage. ESPN and Eric Gordon's ball hogging ass can blow me.
But getting back to this staff, I still have a hard time figuring substitution patterns and our inability to take advantage of some mismatches on offense. I do think Barnes was prepared for what OSU tries to do on defense. We ran some designed back cuts to take advantage of wing denial. Make a fuckin' layup AJ. We also ran a double high ball screen with a dive to the goal, the second screener taking a reversal pass, and the original dive lifting low block help allowing DJ to run a nifty back cut that resulted in points. Very well designed, and further illustrated what the mere threat of a low post presence can do for an offense. The Cowboys evidently forgot we had none on that possession.
On defense, this may be the best coaching job Rick has ever done. Getting high school super stars to commit to playing tenacious, fundamental team defense is almost as hard as getting the Israeli's and Palestinians to agree on a cease fire. It was certainly the defense that carried the day these last couple games which resulted in an unexpected conference title. Give credit where credit is due.
So what now? Well, we escaped boys and girls and have a conference crown to show for it. We'll likely lose the semifinal or final in the conference tourney and then the real fun begins. We can take our shiny new offensive juggernaut to a neutral site to play teams without the slightest bit of familiarity with this Texas team. Those teams will be jacked for sure, but so will we. We'll also have a week off to rest our legs and get after some non-conference opponents that won't know what hit him. Let's just hope they don't guard the perimeter like OK State, and if they do, let's hope our shots are dropping.