Basking in the afterglow of the Horns win against Stanford Friday night, in my "better than I deserve" seats at Reliant Center 10 rows behind Mack Brown and Vince Young, I noticed something about the layup lines of the two teams that would play the night cap. Michigan State seemed to have a pretty good collection of size and athletic ability. There were big strong posts and smaller skilled guards going through a variety of warm up drills. The one thing that really stuck out to me was how short Tom Izzo is. Weird. Then I scanned the other side of the court and saw the proverbial next level. You know, the holy grail that inane sports talking heads are always carping about. Such and such needs to take his game to the next level, or this team needs to play at a higher level. It's also known as "taking the next step", "raising your level of play", "the light coming on", etc.
Well, I saw the next level in college basketball at the other end of the floor. It was something I recognized because I had seen it before, only in different forms. I saw it the first time I tried to guard Travis Best in an AAU game or Tim Hardaway in a pickup game. I experienced it first hand when Darren Hancock jumped over me on a dunk when I tried to pick up a charge in a juco game. It's a level of performance that I could never attain because I wasn't blessed with that type of skill and God given ability. The Memphis layup line was striking in its size and athleticism. It had it all. They looked like an all-airport team if you're Dick Vitale or an all-shower team if you're Jerry Jones.
Twenty minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed. The Tigers had one of the top 13 or 14 teams in America down 50-20 at half. It was like Memphis was playing Athletes in Action. I turned to my buddy and said, "Holy shit, they look like the '90 Vegas team." You know, the juggernaut with a starting five of Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson, and George Ackles. With Moses Scurry coming off the bench. Jerry Tarkanian = John Calipari, it's certainly not a stretch.
So I get home, I write my recap on the Stanford game. Then I begin to write a preview of the Memphis game. Two players into the personnel scouting reports I got a pit in my stomach. There was no way we could guard these guys. I mean shit, Mitch Johnson to Derrick Rose, Anthony Goods to CDR, Fred Washington to Robert Dozier. And when I compared them to their Texas counterpart it didn't get much better because these guys were bigger, stronger, and generally quicker and more skilled at every position 1-5. They were/are, in street parlance, the truth. There wasn't a magic zone, or box and 1, or any personnel group that could be used to force them into misses. If Memphis was going to miss, it was because they just missed, not because a Texas player contested a shot or forced them out of a comfort zone. Going in you knew Derrick Rose could ward off a smaller guard and raise up over him. CDR would back down Abrams and raise up over him. Robert Dozier would catch it in the high post and raise up over the backline of our zone. Etc. and so forth. They could get any shot, anytime they wanted it. The only question was whether or not the shot would go down. And they did, at a 50% clip. Hell they were 23-41 inside the arc. Tip your cap.
On defense the story was even worse, as Memphis’ perimeter size really matches up well against our undersized guards in terms of contesting shots. It was obvious our perimeter players 1-5 were intimidated by the explosiveness and length of Memphis defenders which enabled the Tigers to contest and even alter seemingly wide open looks. Texas had never seen that type of athleticism before and it created panic and hesitancy which led to turnovers and some runouts in the first half. Nine turnovers in the first half and 19-62 shooting out of our starters was a recipe for disaster. Only 5 late second half 3's by Abrams made this game respectable.
The lone bright spot was the first 6-7 minutes of the second half when Rick Barnes went to a box and 1 with Mason on CDR. CDR had been murdering our zone from the high post and the junk D really confused him and the rest of the Tigers allowing the Horns to cut the deficit to 5 points. After a few ill-advised shots including Connor's one dribble pull-up in the corner and a running 1 handed Connie Hawkins-esque shot, DJ's offbalance floater against his body, and a variety of Damion James pullup misses, the Horns found themselves down 20 again. Ballgame.
It was a trouncing to be sure, but the game itself serves to set the bar for the Texas program, illustrating what type of talent and skill is necessary to play for and win the whole enchilada. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who the best teams are and why they are the best. Hell, I called the final four here in my January 7th article "Who's the Best Team?" There's a reason these four are going to duke it out in San Antonio. Here's what Texas needs to do to join the party in the future.
You saw the value of having bigger guards that know they can get their shot whenever they want it. It's such a luxury knowing that your counterpart can't get to your jumpshot. And it f*ck's with your head knowing a defender can get a piece of your jumper. I'm not saying you can't have AJ Abrams or a DJ Augustin on your ballclub, it just puts you at a huge disadvantage strategically to have two of them on the court against an elite team, especially if your 3rd guard is 6-2. UCLA has Collison and Westbrook, UNC has Lawson and Ellington, Memphis has Rose and Anderson, Kansas Chalmers and Robinson. Of the eight starting guards, only Lawson, Chalmers, and Robinson are shorter than 6-3.
Each of the 4 teams starts a small forward that could be classified as a third guard. It's a forward that can rebound, shoot, handle, dish, and generally do it all. Douglass-Roberts, Marcus Ginyard, Josh Shipp, and Brandon Rush not only make it tough for teams to zone placing the all important third shooter on the floor, but they also are a tough matchup for the opponent that has to man, because they can take a bigger forward to the hole or shoot over a smaller defender. Texas has a hybrid forward, he's just playing out of position as a 4.
Notice how I didn't mention post scoring, because Memphis has anything but a traditional post up game. They do get points in the paint, however, by driving and finishing because all of their perimeter players have elite size and ability to finish at the rim. And their frontcourt is probably one of the best finishing frontcourts in the nation. UCLA ofcourse has Love, UNC Hansbrough, and Kansas has Arthur/Jackson for points in the paint. With Texas' starting personnel, the Horns will always step on the floor at an officiating disadvantage because they can't put consistent pressure on teams to defend the rim. If Big Dex, Chapman, Gary Johnson, or Wangmene were playing at their junior year level in yesterday's game, you would have seen a totally different perimeter defense out of Memphis. The Tigers couldn't sit on jumpshots like they did Sunday, instead they'd have to be worried about collapsing to help their interior teammates. Plus the free throw shooting differential game in and game out would be more favorable to the Horns. The good news is that there is talent in the pipeline, we just have to continue to develop it and at some point make post play a bigger part of our attack.
So here's hoping that DJ and James stay because we could be really special if young postmen like Dex, Chapman, Wangmene and Johnson continue to develop at their present rate. If Mason continues to improve, he could be that big guard we need at the two or at times at the one. His defense, improved shooting, and ability to rebound and handle would make him one of the elite off guards in college basketball. Even if DJ leaves, as long as we can get James to stay, we could go with a lineup of Pittman at the 5, Atchley at the 4, James at the 3, Mason at the 1, and Abrams at the 2. We'd be susceptible to teams that pressured, but we could always counter by bringing in Balbay and/or Brown (if he signs), to matchup with those type teams. In any event, Texas has seen the mountain top, and I'm certain that Rick Barnes knows how to get us there. It should be a fun climb.