A funny thing happened on the way to burying the 2010 Texas Longhorns. Defense. For all the handwringing and consternation bandied about on this and other sites about the Longhorn's anemic offense, defense carried the day...err...night.
The ability to defend a four guard, spread the floor offense was the difference in winning and losing. Not personnel packages, five out looks, or iso's and two man games. The difference was straight up, guard your ass, man to man defense that the Texas' fanbase has grown accustomed to in the Rick Barnes era. It's that type of back to basics mentality that may well save this team in its season of discontent.
The game itself ended up turning on two key battles, the first of which was predicted in the preview, while the other came out of left field, and thank the Jai Lucas gnome gods for it.
The first battle was our power forwards, James or Johnson, versus Obi Muonelo. It was posited on this kickass little blog that the ability to guard Muonelo would be the deciding factor determing whether or not Texas could keep their big personnel package, aka Dexter Pittman, on the floor. I figured we'd have to go zone to protect this matchup appropriately, but if we did play man, Johnson and James would have to give cushion and entice jumpers from Obi Wan.
And boy did they. Not only was Muenolo a non-factor getting to the rim, but he may well have shot the Pokes out of the game with a miserable 5-17 from the field. Credit Johnson and mostly James for winning this battle which enabled Dexter to stay on the floor and have a huge game offensively.
The second key battle involved slowing down James Anderson. I thought it would be Bradley and a team effort, but it ended up being Justin Mason. Mason flashed a defensive performance worthy of his sophomore year in slowing down the Big 12's best player. He harassed, denied, and badgered the talented wing into a meak 14 point effort on 5-13 shooting.
We must also credit Barnes for trapping and doubling Anderson off of ballscreens and weakside screens which forced OSU's stud to give up the ball. It was a terrific effort by Mason and company to keep Anderson in check. Hell, he dropped 35 on us in Austin last year.
With those two battles won, it was academic where our offense would come from. Inside. Pittman versus any Poke big man is a mismatch. Damion James or Gary Johnson versus a Poke guard is stealing. We'll talk offense individually...
Damion James. He nearly fouled out James Anderson by himself and that probably had a lot to do with Anderson's poor performance on the other end. Anderson was worn out playing post defense and blocking out the Longhorn jumping jack. Damion also did a nice job of staying patient in an offense looking to pound the Pokes inside. He finished with a very efficient 6-9 shooting night and got to the line, going 6-8 at the charity stripe. He and Pittman are supposed to bludgeon 4 guard offenses and that's exactly what they did.
Dexter Pittman. I'm sure Dexter Pittman feels bad about Doge Balbay's knee. I'm also sure that Dexter Pittman's game will benefit from it as his perfect 5-5 from the field and 11 foul shots in just 20 minutes will attest. Give him some space and there aren't many bigs that can handle the big fella inside. The 8 boards (5 offensive) are exactly what this team needs out of Pittman. Especially when our backcourt takes the golden sombrero from the field.
Jordan Hamilton. Was that a Stacey Augmon doppleganger on defense wearing number 23 for the Horns? Jordan came to play on that end which is always nice to see. Granted Frank Gulley has a tendency to make defenders look like Gary Payton, but at least the effort was there. On offense, Hamilton played a pretty patient game going 4-8 from the field and getting to the line 7 times. That was great to see. Missing 4 of 7 foul shots wasn't. The big wing also pulled down a solid 5 boards to help the cause. Great game by Hamilton on both ends.
Justin Mason. He took an 0-fer from the field, but what a defensive job he did on Anderson. Wow. On offense his best stat was another zero. Zero turnovers. That's exactly what this team needs from Mason. That and a freshman year 3 point stroke, but now I'm getting greedy.
J'Covan Brown. Right now Mason is the better player for whatever reason. Mental, physical, does it really matter? Play Mason until Brown pulls it together. Mason's 0-fer is better than Brown's because at least Mason defends, takes care of the ball, and is a more experienced player. It sucks for a talent like J'Covan but that's the way it is.
Avery Bradley. Like a ninja, he's a silent assassin. We need Avery to be a Mongolian Warrior. In other words he needs to start going strong to the cup to draw fouls when he's not raping and pillaging Eurasia. He's simply too athletic to be strictly a jumpshooter. We need him to step up as an attack-the-basket type especially with the loss of Doge.
Gary Johnson. His defensive game, as discussed, was off the charts impressive. If he can stay in front of Muenelo, he can guard most wings going forward, which gives Barnes more personnel options. On offense, it was another efficient game for Gary who worked the OSU wings.
Jai Lucas. Ah, the Fifth Ward garden gnome. Need to knock down a J, Jai, or get in line behind Andrew Dick.
Overall, big win for the program because it punches our ticket to the Big Dance. If we run the table from here on out, however unlikely that may be, we have a shot to grab a 4 and perhaps a 3 seed. If we're truly getting back to basics defensively, it may not be as unlikely as we think.
P.S. I loved that Bill Raftery did this game. After a particularly weak foul call Raftery quipped, "I bet these officials have never rode the subway." Ha.