Last night's Texas' 67-58 win in front of partisan Villanova crowd at the Mecca of Basketball played out as most folks expected. It was an intense, physical, defensive struggle between two teams with contrasting styles and strengths. Texas was able to take control and hold on to win the basketball for one main reason. Texas valued the basketball more than Villanova. The Horns had fewer turnovers than the 'Cats, who ended up with 19, and Texas took better shots and ran their offense more efficiently. At times, Villanova looked like it played frenetic on the offensive end. They would drive for the sake of driving, or screen for the sake of screening. There was little rhyme or reason to their play offensively. A lot of that was a function of the schedule 'Nova had played to this point. It's much like taking batting practice with a Louisville Slugger. Then throw on a five pound donut and take some swings. Texas was the five pound donut Tuesday night. If 'Nova doesn't play even on the backboards with Texas or if Texas hits foul shots, the Cats get blown out. Tremendous defensive effort for Texas on a good offensive squad.
On the offensive end I thought Texas moved the basketball and shared the basketball better than they have all year, even better than the first half of the UCLA game. The Horns were facing a very good defensive basketball team in a hostile environment and they still were able to get good shots and take good shots for the most part. Sixteen assists on the night for the Horns and that number probably would have been better if not for a couple point blank misses. Aside from the assist numbers, there were several really good shots that led directly to easy buckets, and limited Villanova from getting cheap run out points. Overall, an encouraging effort offensively.
He's starting to get it.
On to the grades.
AJ Abrams. A. AJ played his best game of the year, by far. Villanova, with its smaller lineup, was able to switch the baseline screens and scissor screens Texas uses to free AJ up for J's, without having to worry about many mismatches out top. This usually meant defenders were at the very least in position to chase Abrams off his jumper. But give AJ credit, he was patient in waiting for the game to come to him. He even curled off some of these screens looking for open bigs on the baseline, resulting in 4 assists for the senior guard. Couple that with 0 turnovers against a good backcourt that pressured the whole game, and AJ gets the A. He took one bad shot that I can remember the entire game which is exactly what we need from him. If he hits better than 8-18 from the floor and 6-9 from the line he gets the coveted A+.
Damion James. A-. Damion had a very good shot selection kind of game as well and his stats show it as the junior forward was a sizzling 7-11 from the floor. His midrange game off the bounce will be a huge weapon for Texas especially late in shot clocks when the team is in need of someone to create a shot and manufacture points. James compliments this midrange prowess with a solid catch and shoot ability from deep (2-3 from distance on the night), as well as sick athleticism around the goal. Only reason he gets the A- is he seemed to be MIA rebounding the basketball on some possessions. DJ finished with just 6 boards against a team he should have owned in the paint but I'm picking nits here.
Connor Atchley. F. Speaking of MIA, what the heck is going on with Atchley. Zero points, zero rebounds, two turnovers, and 4 personal fouls in 15 minutes. If he's injured he doesn't need to be on the floor.
Justin Mason. B. Grading on the Justin Mason curve and JM gets a B, because he finished with just 1 rebound and 3 points. If we're grading on the point guard curve for this Texas team then Mason gets an A. The junior do-it-all guard finished the night with 7 dimes in 33 minutes of play againt a guard dominant opponent that pressured 3 quarter court the entire game. Where would we be without the kid from Amarillo?
Gary Johnson. B. Gary Johnson continues to be lightning in a bottle off the bench for this team. Active, active, active is the word best suited to describe his performance last night. His shots weren't falling, and I thought he rushed a couple face up looks, but everywhere else he played solid. Seven boards, 3 blocks, and solid defense in 26 minutes that ended up being hugely valuable in the absence of Connor. If GJ's shots fall he gets the A. But 1-5 from the foul line? Seriously?
No, not that Flash.
Clint Chapman. B-. From this day forward, or at least until Clint starts killing some of his two foot bunnies, I'm going to call the sophomore forward Flash. Because that's what he is right now. A flash of athleticism, a flash of skill, and a flash of potential night in and night out. And then you look at the box score and you think JAG. Six rebounds is getting it done, but I need more than 1-4 from the field, especially when often times you are the biggest guy on the floor. And an athletic one at that.
Pittman. B. Dexter was dominant in stretches early in the game. I loved the way he sat down in the post and gave a target to the entry passer. And the finishes were rim rockers. The big fella is still learning how to control his body to prevent giving a foul and this lack of body control will keep him from getting big minutes at any level. The light is starting to flicker, though. I just hope the perimeter players continue to try to get Dex involved. Only 1 rebound out of the big man in 15 minutes is a problem. He needs to dominate the key on both ends.
Dogus Balbay. B. Offensively he's still a bit out of control. He seems to be playing with the European open court mindset and it cost him with a couple turnovers and a charge. DB needs to be under control when attacking the basket and look to kick out to deep shooters as opposed to dropping dimes on the block unless he's 100% sure it's there. Defensively, he's Freddy Williams good when it comes to on ball defense. He's strong so he can't be discarded from the 5 count with a chicken wing. He's also quick, and his drop step and go on a change of direction dribbler is out of this world. Anyone catch Reynolds resorting to the Mark Jackson/Magic Johnson back to the basket bring the ball up the floor technique. Hilarious. Balbay's already a weapon.
Varez Ward. B+. The true freshman once again played a vital role in wearing down the opposing backcourt. Reynolds and Stokes were flat out gassed at the end of the ballgame. Even more encouraging was Ward's ability on the offensive end. He showed that he's comfortable pulling up from 10 or going right to the rim on you. He also had a couple nice dribble drives that split the zone and led to open looks for teammates. Kid also is a strong athlete grabbing 8 boards against a very aggressive and athletic team. These weren't long rebounds, they were among the trees. Once he gets under control on offense, he'll be a dynamic stat sheet player in the mold of Justin Mason. A kind of player that should really compliment the superstars coming in next year.
No shots before 3 passes.
Coaching. A. Offensively, you can tell this club has been working on post offense. The spacing last night was very good, the post players seemed to be more definitive in getting position to attack the goal, and post entry was, well, better than it's been. Post entry still needs improvement. I'd also wager that Barnes showed the guys film of how the team produces when it's sharing the basketball versus playing as a group of individuals. Texas was making that extra pass and played inside/out more than they have at any other time this year. Very, very encouraging to say the least. Sure there were some bad shots, but talented teams with talented players are going to take bad shots. This style just needs to be the exception and not the rule.
If I'm Damion James I need to know that I might get the ball back if I dribble and kick to AJ Abrams. If I'm AJ Abrams, I need to know that if the defense collapses after I enter the post, that I'll get an easy look when it's kicked back out. If I'm one of Texas' posts, I need to know that getting position and fighting for the block is worth my while. Etc. and so forth. You can tell this team is trending in that direction.
Defensively, I'm not sure there's a better team in the nation. We have on-ball get in your jock pressure guys like Abrams, Mason, Balbay, and Ward. We have long, athletic, get in the passing lane wing denial players like Johnson and James, who still are great on ball defenders. We have strong post defenders like Atchley, Chapman, and Pittman, who can block shots and move folks off the low block. We have the athleticism to rebound above the rim and can close out possessions versus athletic teams. And we have a coach that has made a living coaching the defensive end of the floor.
Our only worries thus far are foul shooting and chemistry on offense due to the lack of a true point guard. The latter seems to be working itself out. The former will continue to stick in our heads unless we start having success from the stripe, and soon.
Overall, it was a great win over another name top 10 opponent in their neck of the woods. It's the kind of win that really helps prepare Texas for Big 12 roadies.