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As Texas Enters the Meat of Conference Play: Five Questions Loom

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The Texas Longhorns are currently sitting at 4-1 in conference play, a game and a half behind first place Oklahoma in the standings. Catching a balanced Sooner club won't be an easy task, but the Longhorns get their return shot at the Sooners February 21st in Austin in a game that may decide the eventual conference champion. For that game to matter Texas must address some issues that have made the 2008-2009 group inconsistent at times this season. If Texas is going to finish on top, then some if not all of these five questions must be answered satisfactorily.

Has Texas found its answer at point guard?
The point guard position is by far the most demanding spot on the floor for the college player and everyone saw the toll it took on Justin Mason's game. It turned the talented junior stat sheet stuffer into a shell of himself as a player. Mason has done an admirable job trying to get other players involved this year, but the unintended consequence of masquerading as a pass first point guard is Justin now plays overly tentative in seeking his own offense. And although Mason enjoyed some success creating with the ball last year, he was often times guarded by the opposing team's third best perimeter defender while defenses concentrated on DJ Augustin and AJ Abrams. This year Justin is usually squaring up with the opposing teams' best on ball defenders and as result he's struggled. On the defensive side of things, Mason lacks the energy he's had in year's past and he's no longer the lock down defender this team can rely on. He's having trouble keeping players in front of him, and he's not nearly as active getting into passing lanes for steals and easy buckets.

If I see these issues and you see these issues, then Rick Barnes certainly sees them. Enter Dogus Balbay. As a big believer that point guards are born and not made, I can say without a doubt that Balbay is a true point guard. His ability to see the floor, his understanding of the game, and his ability to deliver the basketball, combined with his explosive quickness make him a leathal penetrator and creator. Dogus' ability to finish at the rim with elite athletic ability and the sophomore's terrific on ball defensive skills are just icing on the cake. He's a true distributing point guard that most teams covet. Balbay can be every bit as good as Chris Corchiani, Bob Hurley, and Mateen Cleaves. And he has something in common with those three other than inate point guard skills. He can't shoot a lick. Until Dogus can knock down a 15 footer consistently, he's going to have problems, and consequently Texas will have problems as long is Dogus is their answer at point guard. Which leads me to the next question...

If Balbay's the answer, how will Texas cover for his deficiencies shooting the basketball?
Texas has buttered its offensive bread with the screen roll or screen pop game for the better part of Barnes' tenure. Big men that can shoot like Connor Atchley and Brian Boddicker have made the ball screen and pop with the lead guard a staple of Barnes' offenses. The problem is, unless you have TJ Ford like quickness in your point guard, the guard must be a legit shooting threat for the screen and roll/pop to work, otherwise the opposing guard doesn't need hedge help and he can simply go under the screen. No switching, no space created by a hedge, zero benefit. Without the screen roll threat, Texas will have to do more screening away from the ball when Balbay is in. In addition to weakside screening, Texas can enhance Balbay's ability to penetrate by spreading the floor and using flurries of penetration and kick much like Memphis and Wake Forest. Guard centric teams can really hurt defenses by attacking the recovering defenders after a few drive and kick machinations. Check out my explanation of the Dribble Drive Motion offense about halfway down this Memphis Scouting report. This offense would be ideal for Balbay. Or check out a Wake Forest game.

To cut out penetration, it wouldn't shock me to see teams zone Texas with Dogus in the game. The good news for Texas fans is that the Texas frontcourt is tailor made for attacking zone defenses. Gary Johnson's proficiency from the high post area shooting the basketball or driving to the goal can exploit the soft middle of a traditonal 2-3 or 3-2. Damion James' off the chart athletic ability along the baseline or short corner is perfect for attacking behind the zone, and his shooting ability makes him a threat from deep. Connor Atchley, however, is the key. His ability to hit perimeter shots from his 4 spot mitigates Dogus' shooting deficiency. Connor gives Texas the coveted 3 legit deep shooting threats when he's on the floor with James and Abrams. With that said...

Who are you and what have you done with Connor Atchley?
Connor's unique ability to float on the perimeter and knock down 3's offensively and guard 4's and 5's on the defensive end purportedly made him a shoe-in NBA prospect going into this year. The way he's playing this year, however, he might be starring at your local rec league. Connor has been slowed by an undisclosed injury all year, but this team really needs his scoring punch especially with Dogus coming on the scene. If Connor can return to last year's form Texas can make a run at the conference title and go deep into the tournament. Without his perimeter threat, Texas will struggle in a halfcourt offensive setting against zones or sagging M2M's.

Can AJ Abrams stay patient?
In the last 3 games, a tough stretch against Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Baylor, AJ Abrams has played some of his best basketball at Texas. By "best basketball" I'm not talking about stats, I'm talking about being mature, patient and unselfish shooting the basketball. AJ has struggled at times forcing the action and hunting his own offense to the detriment of talented players like Damion James, Gary Johnson, and Dexter Pittman. This selfish attitude feeds on itself because as a player you're more inclined to force shots if other players are forcing shots because there's an uncertainty that you'll ever get the ball back if you make a pass in a given possession. Conversely, when players are playing unselfishly, as AJ has played in the last 3 contests, you'll see better ball movement which leads to better looks because players know if they get open they'll get touches. In Texas' last 6 games they are 4-2. In the 4 wins Abrams is averaging about 10 field goal attempts. In the two losses, he's averaging over 20. Coincidence?

Where does Dexter Pittman fit in?
After the lopsided loss to Oklahoma, Rick Barnes switched personnel groups and by extension offensive philosophies from a pound the paint, back to the basket scheme, to a spread the floor, attack the basket face up offense. Out was Dexter Pittman's starter's minutes, replaced by Gary Johnson's face up skillset as the focal part of Texas' frontcourt offense.

Eventhough Texas has won 3 straight with this new look, Dexter Pittman can still be one of the elite big men in college basketball if given a chance. The big man is hitting 59% of his field goals and is one of the better free throw shooters at 76%. In the last two games he's averaged about a point a minute dropping 6 and 7 points against Texas A&M and Baylor respectively. Big Dex's ability to finish is also an outstanding compliment to a great passer like Balbay. So eventhough Texas is more efficient offensively with Gary Johnson in the game spreading the floor for dribble penetration, Pittman still has a place in the Longhorn's attack. It makes sense to use Dexter in brief stints during games to exploit mismatches with opposing frontcourts. It's one more thing teams have to prepare for when facing the Horns, and it would be a mistake to not play a guy that can get you a point a minute given the right circumstances.

All of the above issues are important but if Texas can answer 1 and 2 sufficiently, the Longhorns will be in the thick of the conference race until the end. Take care of all 5 which would mean successfully making Dogus Balbay the fulltime lead guard, seeing Atchley regain his junior year form, AJ Abrams exercising good shot selection, and finding a place for Pittman, then sky's the limit.

Thoughts?