Without even knowing it back in 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche penned some prophetic thoughts on the 2009 Texas basketball
team in his first book The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings:
“The strange mixture and duality in the affects of the Dionysiac enthusiasts, that phenomenon whereby pain awakens pleasure while rejoicing wrings cries of agony from the breast. From highest joy there comes a cry of horror or a yearning lament at some irredeemable loss.”
Thanks, you pedantic asshole. Texas went 17-0 and nearly missed the tournament, Fred! A 'yearning lament at some irredeemable loss' sort of understates the issue, don't you think? When a special year turns into a reenactment of Oedipus The King as soon as Texas A&M Corpus Christi slowed the Horns down with a triangle and two -- that's tragedy.
So what was the real cause of the Horns’ downfall last season? I think the collapse can best be explained in three parts, in order of impact.
First and foremost, the staff miscalculated the driver of the teams’ early success—depth and athleticism. This was a team that didn’t win by out-executing, outshooting, or outplaying opponent -- regardless of talent -- it simply outlasted them. It was typed on this very blog that the secret to our success was to look like shit for 35 minutes and then go on a 10-0 run against a gassed opponent en route to a 8-12 point win. It didn’t matter if it was TAMCC or Michigan State.
Conventional college basketball wisdom tells you to shorten your bench as the season wears on and play your best 7 or 8 to maximize efficiency and Rick Barnes did just that. The only problem was that with shortening the bench, Barnes minimized his teams’ lone advantage against most teams—depth. Unwittingly, he also set up his team for failure by playing into the scouting report revealed by Coastal Aggie.
Secondly, by shortening his bench, Barnes went away from his open court advantage and allowed teams to implement the foreshadowed scouting report: play a half court game, keep help honest, and make the Horns execute their half court offense. Allocating help from non-shooters like Balbay and forcing young players like Brown, Bradley, and Hamilton to create for teammates was the perfect antidote for a Longhorn squad that would run teams into submission in a full court open floor game of attrition like they did against UNC and Michigan State in December. Decisions made in the context of 94 feet of space are much easier to make than in a triple threat position just outside the arc when you can't handle, shoot, or pass.
Which leads us to the third and final issue that ties into the preceding two: No facilitators. With the lack of a playmaking point guard or point forward, the two best Longhorn offensive players were neutralized. First round pick James couldn’t get his own shot for the most part, and the pivot advantage that Dexter Pittman enjoyed in 2008 (and will in the NBA, ironically) was suffocated by dishonest help -- guys that weren't threatened by honest to goodness basketball skill.
As for Chemistry issues? They were a function of points 1 through 3 and the ensuing losses those problems delivered.
Keeping with the Greek theme, this season's Longhorn squad rates to be a collection of Heroes. Unfortunately they're all named Achilles. This mythological hero was dipped in a magical river by his heel making him invincible everywhere but from where he was held. Oddly enough, this Longhorn squad will endure deficiencies that would make one think they've been dipped in the River Styx, only some have been held by their Nikes while others have been thrown in the magical waters wearing floaties as their weaknesses are above the neck.
Cory Joseph headlines this group and ultimately the team. As CoJo goes so does Texas. Rick Barnes' best teams featured maestros at the Point: TJ Ford and DJ Augustin. Joseph doesn’t really need to improve on anything from a skills standpoint. He can handle, shoot, and he has plus size. What Joseph needs to do is get a handle on the nuances of the point guard position at the college level.
The psychology of running a team as such a young player is tough, especially when you’re ordering talented upperclassmen all over the floor. It’s one of the reasons I pointed out last summer that J’Covan Brown wouldn’t be successful as a point guard early on in his career at Texas. Brown didn’t have the maturity or experience necessary to run a show that included talented players with more seniority.
Fortunately, Joseph has run some point at the highest levels of the summer AAU circuit and at Findlay Prep, but he’ll still have to deal with psychology of the position where there’s certain to be some growing pains.
Another concern is that Joseph isn’t going to blow by above average on-ball defenders without the benefit of a screen so he’ll need playmaking help from other positions. If you’ve got your second or third best on ball defender on Brown or Hamilton then it makes sense to run offense through these two.
Speaking of J'Covan Brown, I hope that Coach Barnes has loosened the reins on the young man allowing him some freedom to operate and create. But if what we’re hearing about practices is true, that’s not the case. Brown has done his part by dropping weight and getting into Todd Wright shape, we just hope the staff meets him halfway and allows him to grow into the creator he can be.
As far as Jordan Hamilton is concerned, he has all the skillset you need to facilitate offense as a point forward. Grant Hill essentially ran the point for Duke in 1994 and while Hamilton isn’t Grant Hill, he can certainly be Draymar Green in that capacity, the Spartan forward who facilitated offense for Tom Izzo after the MSU lead guard position was racked by injury late in the season. I’m not asking for much, just some 1 - 4 lows with Jordan creating from the top of the key against a 3-man who’s used to chasing opponents along the baseline away from the ball.
Dogus Balbay is a specialist in my mind unless the staff is willing to go uptempo and open-floor to mitigate his lack of credibility as an offensive player in the half court set. If this staff puts Balbay on the floor with Joseph, we’re setting young Cory up for failure. Brown would be a better tandem at shooting guard.
Lucas is best served scaring away the winter trolls and nymphs that plague Austin gardens. He just needs a pipe and a conical hat, imo.
Much like Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson’s production will be the biggest frontcourt determinant in how this team fares. He’ll be asked to play big minutes (don't be surprised if he starts from day one), be a force as a screen and dive guy, and rebound where Damion James left off. The good news is that he’s taken to Todd Wright’s workout program and is downright CHISELED. The bad news is that he’ll be under siege in the pivot given the inability of our perimeter to stay in front of ballhandlers. He’ll need to play smart and play sound positionally to stay out of foul trouble.
Gary Johnson gives the Horns experience and effort, but word on the street is that he might be able to give Texas the pick and pop dynamic of Brian Boddicker and Connor Atchley. If Johnson has indeed extended his range to beyond the arc, he gives Barnes some interesting lineup options including a frontcourt of Shawn Williams, GJ, and Thompson with Hamilton and Joseph up top. This unit would provide terrific length to play zone on one end, as well as 4 credible shooters/scorers on the other to the extent they can rebound. Keep in mind the Horns are going to be a horrible rebounding team regardless of who they roll out, so Barnes should at least give zone some thought.
I love Shawn Williams as a shooting/rebounding specialist infinitely more than the WangChapHill three-headed monster of mediocrity. I get that in some games we’ll need size, but I’d rather roll with Williams and play some zone, than watch three different people help to Cory Joseph on ball screens. Plus, flanking Thompson with Williams and Johnson enhances Tristan’s face up game and opens the floor for Texas’ skilled players. The only downside is Rick Barnes’ head exploding when Texas only wins 85 to 80 instead of 70 to 65.
There’s still a bunch of talent on this squad even if most of it is scoring-centric. Rick Barnes would be wise to embrace this fact and find a way to mitigate defensive deficiencies much like Scott Drew did with his Baylor team by playing some zone. If that’s unpalatable, then emulate Coach K, who changed his spots and went away from pressure man-to-man to a Pack Line (heels on the arc) defense that accentuated his teams' strengths.
Either way, there’s going to have to be some give and take in terms of offense vs. defense to maximize talent. When Myck Kabango or LJ Rose gets to campus then roll out a defensive minded squad and let Myck manufacture offense. Cory Joseph isn’t that type of player. But he can be a hero if Barnes finds a way to protect the team's collective Achilles heel.
The goal is always make the tournament and hope you make it out of the opening weekend. If this team is still dancing into the Sweet 16, Barnes will have done a heck of a job and restored some goodwill after a tragic year in 2009.