Rick Barnes knows that when you take a bunch of talented, precocious freshman on the road to a hostile environment like Fayetteville you're going to be tested.
And if you asked the coach about officiating, though he wouldn't admit it, Coach Barnes knows that playing former SWC rival Arkansas at their place likely means there's going to be some homecooking.
Make no mistake about it, a coach like Barnes, someone who's gone toe to toe with Dean Smith and Coach K in buildings bearing their names, fully expected last night's game to play out like it did. Hell, Rick practically welcomed it, because after all he scheduled the game and did so for these reasons...College Station, Manhattan, Lubbock, Norman, Waco, etc. If you're going to get homecooked in Big 12 arenas, what better test is there than to go to the homer whistle capital of the world?
As for the how the game played out, the freshman played like freshman with the exception of Avery Bradley. J'Covan Brown made poor decision after poor decision and Jordan Hamilton played outside the confines of the offense and got Teed up for good measure. Dogus Balbay couldn't stay in front of Fortson or Rotnei Clark. For the most part, it was a tough night for the young pups, but at the end of the day it was a productive night from a preparation standpoint.
Let's talk players.
Damion James. The Horns had a decided advantage inside this game and James did an efficient job making hay around the rim offensively his short time on the floor. This was the longest DJ has sat all year and he has a couple of marginal calls to thank for it. He can also lay blame on the Texas perimeter folks for not being able to stay in front of Fortson and Clark which exposed bigs like James and Pittman to foul trouble. The biggest play for James and probably the Horns in general was James' little J with 2 minutes remaining to extend the Longhorn lead to two possessions, just after the senior had come off the bench.
That's what you need out of your seniors at winning time. His 7-10 performance from the foul line was about as valuable as it gets and James would have added to his monster night of 20 pts and 9 boards if he wouldn't have been limited by the zebras. I also loved the high/low sets we ran with James and Pittman, because it totally removed any big help from the equation for Arkansas' undersized squad. It would have been nice to see the damage this set could have inflicted had James been allowed on the floor for more than 19 minutes. Great game by Damion in any event.
Since it's still football season we'll use a football analogy. Dexter Pittman is your power, downhill running game. When the elements aren't ideal, or you're having a bad shooting night, lean on the big fella for easy points that wear out opponents. His box shows a dominating 10-15 from the floor, 8 offensive board, and 21 points in 27 minutes of play. Want proof of the curious whistles in this game? Dexter Pittman shot 1 free throw. Yes, 1 goddamn free throw. Five of Arkansas' players shot more foul shots than Dex. But back to Pittman's dominance, he's our insurance policy when we go on the road or have a tough time shooting the ball. If we run offense through him, there's little teams can do unless they have a 6-10 260 pound athlete to match up. When we went away from Pitt last night we got in trouble. Let's not do that again.
As good as James and Pittman played, from an offensive standpoint Bradley was the MVP. He was the only perimeter player that looked to be mentally strong enough to thrive in a hostile environment. AB had 12 points on 5-8 shooting, but he had a stellar 5 assists to 1 turnover in 36 minutes of play. Again, he needs to hunt his offense more and if it takes attempts away from Brown and Hamilton, I'm all for it. Bradley is the only freshman that truly understands what a good shot is and we need to trust him with more attempts. Defensively, it wasn't pretty for Avery. He didn't handle Rotnei Clark well at all and that's surprising considering some of the guards he's taken out. But sometime a dude just has your number for the night. It happens.
This was a sweet spot game for Johnson given Arkansas' lack of size and style of play. They're small and they're not the most disciplined team on the glass. Kudos to GJ for taking advantage and bailing the Horns out with another stellar performance. His 7-9, 16 point, and 7 board performance should help him earn even more minutes.
Dogus managed the game well when he was in for his 19 minutes. The 6 assists against 1 turnover and 3-6 shooting night is just what you want out of Balbay. The problem was we didn't get a very good defensive effort out Doge and that's where his bread is buttered. He struggled to stay in front of Courtney Fortson all night and that's surprising considering what he's done to Lucas and Drew. Perhaps it was just an off night.
If you could morph him with Doge Balbay you'd have the perfect lead guard. Lucas does so much for this team offensively in terms of spreading the floor and opening driving angles to the goal and post entry angles to big Dex. He struggles against a on-ball defensive pressure but when you get him in a halfcourt he's a savvy player who has an uncanny ability to deliver the ball to players in the right position at the right time making the offense flow better. His basketball IQ is off the charts he just needs to handle the ball a bit better. He's already the best shooter on the team and he'll get consistent playing time as teams continue to zone and play sagging m2m against the Horns. A solid effort for Jai.
As Brown and Hamilton continue to wallow in their freshmanness, more minutes are becoming available to Mason and he's showing a bit more confidence offensively. If he can ever get his sophomore groove back stroking the basketball, there's a place for him as a core component of this team. I'd like to see him paired up with Jai and flanked by Brown in some situations especially if teams aren't pressuring.
Two steps forward, one step back is the story of his young career. If I'm Barnes, I'm almost tempted to oversimplify the game for Jordan by putting him in a personnel group that presses, runs, and shoots just to take the decision making out of the equation as much as possible. Hamilton's great when he's catching and shooting. Or guarding and getting into passing lanes. Get-ball-shoot-ball is the style he needs to be playing until he gets a little more seasoning.
Similar to Jordan Hamilton in that he's struggling with decision making at this point. Brown needs to be off the ball in catch and shoot or catch and attack situations. When he dominates the basketball with his dribble he's killing us. I also saw him freeze out Hamilton on two separate occasions when Jordan was standing wide open on the perimeter. I get that Brown's probably thinking if he passes he never gets it back from JH, and he'd be right, but that kind of shit feeds on itself and there's no place for it on a team trying to win it all. Check your ego at the door and pass the ball to the open player. If he takes a bad shot or black holes it, then get in his shit. Brown's paltry 8 minutes of play is a message from the coaching staff in my opinion.
Alex had a big bucket on a put back for the Horns, but I was really impressed with his defense especially hedging on the perimeter in his 10 minutes. It looks like he's starting to get the team defense concept. He battled hard on the glass as well which is what this team needs.
Overall, it was an ugly win, but when you peel back the layers, this game was close because the Razorbacks shot 28 free throws. Some of that was whistle related but some of it was our inability to stay in front of their guards. The officials aspect will help us in the long run when we go on the road in conference play, and the inability to stay in front problems will be corrected by thousands of defensive slides in practice. Offensively, we did what we do. Pressure, run and out athlete you on the perimeter, and body blow you inside with our bigs. Presto, 96 points on 56% shooting. Elite stuff.