Much like the other 3 games Texas has played this season, the tussle with the Pitt Panthers was a tale of two halves for the Longhorns. To date the modus operandi for Barnes' crew has been to body blow teams with waves of depth and defensive pressure for the first 20 minutes.
And however ugly this 20 minutes may look to the fans, you can't argue with the results considering the Horns have had the luxury of jogging across the finish lines because opponents are gassed in the last 10 minutes of the game.
It was evident that Pitt fell victim to Texas' blueprint when the Panthers committed costly unforced turnovers, missed wide open jumpers, and stopped pulling crucial rebounds down the stretch. It almost looked like a different Pitt team had taken the floor for the last 10 minutes. And it was. Fatigue makes cowards of us all and Jamie Dixon's group is no different apparently.
If you look at the boxscore, the game looks like a garden variety blow out. Hell, it's an impressive win when you can run an above average Big East squad out of the gym. Especially when they're getting all the whistles. But if we drill down, this performance for the Horns is not without its warts.
First, the loss of Varez Ward is a killer. He's the only experienced perimeter scorer Texas has on the roster, and with his play in the first 3 ballgames, you could see his role as a go to guy trending upward. He's the only player on the roster that can get his own shot, create off the dribble, with big time division 1 skins on the wall. Now Texas will have to rely on one of the freshman, Hamilton, Bradley, or Brown to fill that void. Will get to them in a moment.
Next, the last five minutes of the first half, a stretch during which Texas was held without a field goal, is concerning. Not concerning from a standpoint of ability, hell all teams go through cold shooting spells. Concerning because of the 2008-esque personnel we rolled with in that last 5 minutes and the manner in which we ran offense with that personnel. First, the players. Out of these 5, who are you going to run offense through? Wangmane, James, Mason, Balbay, and Brown.
If your answer is Brown, well, you'd be right. Problem is, Texas got the wrong answer. We tried a double post look designed to pound Lexi and James on the block. What? The set and personnel group for all intents and purposes made Balbay a non-factor since the floor shrunk to the size of a driveway sport-court. On the wings, Brown was reduced to a pure perimeter shooter, which he isn't at this stage, and Mason well, kept being Mason. The result is Wangmane struggled to even catch the basketball and Damion James tried to hit fadeaway 10 footers as the shot clock expired. I felt like Michael J. Fox in a Deloreon. But hey, if you don't enter the post and jack 3's, you're not going to play. I'm talking to you Jordan Hamilton.
But alas a win is a win right? Wrong. I'll take it, but we're playing against a standard that involves beating elite teams like KU, Kentucky, and Michigan State. And five minute, beat your head against the wall lack of scoring stretches won't get that done. On to the players.
Damion James. When Damion is taking 3 different kinds of shots, he's going to shoot over 50% from the field and that's what this team needs. DJ should only be shooting spot up 3's, dunks/layups of offensive rebounds, and dunks/layups off of dimes. That's it. Asking him to be a number 1 scoring option is madness. His solid 8-13 becomes an otherworldly 8-10 night if he stays in his wheelhouse. The 3 shots he missed as the first option are inefficent team field goal attempts. Let our scorers manufacture points. The 9 boards and suffocating defense are par for his course. It's why he's special.
Brown. The kid just goes and gets buckets and he'll have to get more with the loss of Ward. He was a paltry 2-6 from deep, but a lot of those were in and out. They'll start falling as the season wears on. When they do, his ability to get to the basket will be startling.
Pittman. A combination of silly whistles and bad fouls kept the wraps on the big guy for most of the night. Gary McGhee's presence as a big plodder would have allowed Dex to stay on the floor for extended minutes and dominate. The foul trouble should serve as a cautionary tale for the big fella. He's too valuable to play just 18 minutes. Statline looks solid other than pulling just one board.
Balbay. Without the young guard's stellar play helping to fill the void left by Ward, I don't know if we win the game. His statline is just ridiculous 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists to 2 turnovers. Typical smothering defense. He's our point guard going forward, but you must flank him with shooters at the 2 and 3 to keep the floor spread. If you don't, you set him up for halfcourt failure.
Bradley. A 4-8 night is just about perfect. It was good to see him hunt his offense a little more and he'll need to do so with Varez being gone. His stroke is so smooth he could help fill the scoring void, but he needs to continue to search aggressively for his offense.
Gary Johnson. Quite frankly, he's playing a much bigger role thus far than I envisioned him playing. I'm still skeptical that he can be a big contributor against bigger, more physical teams. Still, the guy competes on the glass and on the defensive end and can be a valuable contributor with the right matchups.
Justin Mason. I'm not sure I see the value in playing him 20 minutes other than serving as a "carrot and stick" in Rick Barnes' Freudian tool box. Let's look at Mason's contribution on the night. He struggled to stay in front of Wanamaker, blew a layup, had 1 assist, and 1 rebound in 20 minutes of play. His mere presence and lack of shooting crediblity shrinks the floor and, bluntly put, makes the other players on the floor, especially Balbay, worse basketball players. If his playing time is designed to light a fire under Hamilton and Brown, then okay. If not, I'm worried.
Look, when you recruit players as talented as Hamilton, you need to allow them some freedom to operate. Sure, pull him for a spell when he doesn't enter the basketball. Coach him, chew his ass, threaten to take away his iPod. But don't sit him on the bench for 30 minutes in game he could be getting valuable experience. He's the type of singular talent, when added to the rest of the talent on the club, that's going to get you to the final four. The fact that he's the only true 3 on your roster makes him even more valuable.
I love to see that he's becoming a physical force on the low block offensively. We saw flashes of that two years ago. As he continues to get more comfortable with the ball in his hands, he can end up being a real weapon. Defensively, it was good to see him get a couple of blocks from the weakside. He'll make life a lot easier for Dex when defending elite big men.
Barnes. His blue print is to wear down teams and coast by them at the finish line. Sooner or later we're going to face a team with similar talent and depth. He better be prepared to use all the bullets in his gun. Or better yet, he better make sure they're prepared to be used.