For all of the sunshine pumping regarding our potential offensive prowess, there will still be incredibly frustrating runs for this team. Even with all of the offensive fire power that arrived on the campus this summer, I expect offense to remain the weak link on the team. Rick Barnes is a defensive guy, and I expect the lion's share of the practice minutes to be utilized on this side of the basketball. Let's take a look at the strengths of this year's team.
Areas Rick Barnes' Texas Teams Excel
Coach Barnes demands a very high standard of excellence on defense. He prefers a pressure man to man. Texas has only gone to zone when we had to (Daniel Gibson's freshman year, the DJ years, and to protect Dexter Pittman) and will occasionally throw in a 1-2-1-1 or some variation in the full court, mainly to disrupt the rhythm of the opposing team and steal about 5 seconds of shot clock. Barnes will also deploy full court man pressure on occasion, especially in late game deficit scenarios, but since it is merely an extension of his half court man to a larger area, I will not concentrate on the full court.
Unfortunately, we will see the 2-3 zone deployed this year in an effort to take pressure off of Dexter in the middle and protect him from foul trouble. I say unfortunately because Texas is not a very good 2-3 team. On the face of it, the 2-3 zone would seem to be the easiest of all defenses to run, and that is true schematically. The problem is that it is easy to be a mediocre 2-3 team, and very difficult to be an excellent one. Obviously, Jim Boeheim's Syracuse teams are the gold standard when it comes to the 2-3 defense. I think we all can remember that it absolutely flummoxed Texas in the 2003 Final Four.
To be honest, expecting Texas to play the 2-3 to the standard that Syracuse does is ludicrous. The Orange's matchup zone is their base defense and Jimmy Boeheim's is riding it into the Hall of Fame. With elite length, it is an absolutely devastating defense (and Texas has the length). But, In the 2-3, Texas is not nearly aggressive enough nor do they understand the rotations to the center of the court (the soft spot in the zone) well enough to make this anything but a stopgap to hide the big fella. Texas has the length to bother the shooters of weaker teams that can't attack us methodically. So, we will see some success against weaker competition, but the 2-3 isn't going to help us against UNC, Kansas, or any well coached team with a couple of the right pieces.
The other infuriating aspect about our 2-3 zone is its passive nature bleeds into our team at the offensive end. This is liable to happen when you don't run an offense. Texas relies on feeding off the energy created by our defense to fuel our offense. Our 2-3 creates passive inertia that hurts us on the other end.
On defense, our particular strength is ball pressure. Our best defensive teams have had a shutdown on the ball defender like Royal Ivey (or the unlikely Willie Clay) that takes the other teams best guard and shuts him down like Mangino at an all you can eat fried chicken buffet. We rarely have more than one or two of these guys on a single team. Barnes has four this year. Just the thought of Justin Mason, Dogus Balbay, Varez Ward, and Avery Bradley made Sherron Collins purge like Lindsey Lohan before the Seventeen Kid's Choice Awards. I long to see Barnes deploy these guys in waves to the immense frustration of Teniente Denis Clemente, Ginyard and Drew, and hopefully Kalin Lucas.
If there are nits to be picked, Barnes man defense is guilty of a couple of weaknesses. One, our backside rotations tend to be a step slow when our frontline pressure is defeated, though Justin Mason covers down to the post well enough to make Larry Brown cream his Sansabelts. Also, we occasionally bail out fantastic man pressure by not utilizing a full deny one pass away. The full deny can get you backdoored like Christy Turlington, but it makes sense to sell out there if you are going to sell out pressuring the ball.
There, my nits have been picked.
Coach Barnes employs the same high standard for pressure on the ball for team rebounding. If you have had a seat within earshot of the Rick at the Drum in the last couple of years, you have heard his profanity laced tirades that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush spewed at Connor Atchley's block out position. Again, this year could be Rick's best rebounding team. He has one truly elite out of area rebounder in Damion James and one potentially elite out of area rebounder in Lexi Wangmene. I hope that Wangmene achieves enough notoriety to have a porn star use Lexi Wang Many as a stage name some day. We all have dreams.
Dexter Pittman is a man mountain that should clear the lane for his own rebounds and others to clean up his work. Gary Johnson is a max effort pit bull that may not be elite, but rarely gives up position to his man. Texas also has excellent rebounding guards in Justin Mason, Dogus Balbay, and Avery Bradley. Jordan Hamilton and Shawn Williams on the wing are also excellent rebounders.
In short, between defense and rebounding, the opposing team will have to value its possessions very highly to not get run out of the gym.
What Makes Rick Barnes and Elite Coach
There is only one area (I am not including recruiting in this preview) where Rick Barnes is a truly elite coach. And by elite, I mean that he does this better than every single coach in the country. Coach Barnes gets kids to buy in and give more effort than the players they play against. This is an extraordinary advantage, and one that is much more important than his defensive prowess or his offensive shortcomings specifically for this years team. Coach gets max effort, and not in a Jerry Schmidt eat your own vomit kind of way. Barnes gets players to buy in so totally that they don't want to leave even when they have to (example: TJ Ford).
There is a reason Kevin Durant comes back to Austin to sleep on Justin Mason's floor and ball with the young guys in the summer. There is a reason TJ Ford had to be forced in tears to enter the draft even though he had a career threatening spinal condition that made his earning potential a bundle of C4 attached to a cheap mechanical alarm clock. There is a reason Royal Ivey spends his summers here and Justin Mason teaches the guys that are going to take his job the ropes and J'Covan Brown fights his high school coach and the massive sinkhole that is PA to get into Texas.
The reason is Rick Barnes.
Since the word that J'Covan Brown cleared the bureaucratic fascists at the J'Clearinghouse, my biggest worry was how Coach Barnes would divvy out minutes well enough to keep free agents playing for a contract (Damion James and Dexter Pittman), the ESPNU 100's #1 player Avery Bradley, the classic one and done wing Jordan Hamilton, Florida transfer Jai Lucas, the emerging Varez Ward, the I'll go professional in Europe again Dogus Balbay, the bled for the program and I have 101 starts Justin Mason, and the junkyard dog Gary Johnson, happy with only 200 minutes per basketball game. On most teams, like Kansas and Kentucky, this would be an enormous problem. Most teams don't have Rick Barnes.
Sometime about two weeks ago, in between reading articles about Durant's summer in Austin, Justin Mason's new role as player coach for the young guards, and Avery Bradley evidently being the most humble world class shooting guard in the history of man, it occurred to me that Barnes will be able to handle this just fine.
Kevin Durant is probably our best example of what buying in to the program means. KD played one year of college basketball because the NBA Player's Association bargained away his right to be a lottery pick coming out of high school. He has already given the program more than it can repay in prestige and recruiting rewards. Yet, he couches it with one of his old classmates, goes to class, and dazzles the guys in open gyms. He has a shoe contract that is bigger than the defense budget of most third world countries, and he chooses to spend his very sparse down time at Texas or on the sidelines at football games. If a once in a generation scorer like Durant buys in, then what is Jordan Hamilton going to do when Barnes tears him a new asshole for giving up the baseline?
I don't think so. Pout? Maybe, but since everyone on this team is replaceable, that won't get him very far. I just used Hamilton as an example. If he is the Paul Pierce clone that he has been billed as, then fierce competitiveness will take over and we won't be able to keep him off the court.
Barnes' magnetism and the competition for minutes on a team that can go 14 deep will keep guys fighting for playing time. Survival of the fittest is a damned fine concept when you have a bench full of guys that can all get it done.
Effort is the reason I take Texas to win it all this year over the extremely talented and well coached Kansas Jayhawks, the E! True Hollywood Story Kentucky Wildcats, and the junkyard dog Michigan State Spartans. I think Barnes gets more out of his guys than anyone else, and this year he has a team as talented or more talented than anyone else in the country.
Part III The Opponents to arrive before tip off. Hopefully.