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Texas Longhorns vs. Illinois Illini Post Mortem

As is mostly the case in college hoops, especially non-conference tilts, the matchup between the 22nd-ranked Texas Longhorns and the 16th-ranked Fighting Illini was a battle of tempos. It was a tug of war that often found one team trying to speed up the pace by pushing and pressuring while other squad tried to control it by zoning on defense and then running shot clock on offense.

The problem for Bruce Weber’s squad in the first half of last night’s contest was that when Illinois tugged to make it a full court game, Texas let go of the rope. Run and gun? "Sounds fun" says Rick Barnes.

"They were terrific, those guys have done a good job for us," Texas coach Rick Barnes said of Hamilton and Thompson. "You don't understand how hard [Illinois' Demetri] McCamey is to guard and we went after him all night long. ... There's little subtle games that went on in the game that won't show up in the stat sheet that were huge."

Some of the subtle games Rick is talking about have to do with pushing the ball up the floor (make or miss) when Balbay was in the game to help mitigate spacing and efficiency issues that come when Dogus and his mates get caught in the halfcourt. But as we talked about in the preview, and as Barnes states above, McCamey is the truth as a lead guard, and Dogus had to be on the floor regardless. Watch his effort down the stretch and in OT and McCamey's correllating fade from the box score.

Weber's hubris seemed to wear off once he got his team in the locker room after having 45 dropped on him. I’m almost certain his overconfidence was inspired by playing in the 80’s against Toledo and SIU that made him think he could run Texas out of the gym. Huge tactical error on his part for the reasons we typed about in the preview. After some adjustments, I think the tempo suited the Illini better in the 2nd half when Texas went nearly 7 minutes without a field goal. But an unbelievable individual performance from Tristan Thompson in the second half, and some key buckets by Hamilton, Joseph, and Johnson down the stretch got Texas to overtime against a gassed McCamey and company. Hmmm, does that make Todd Wright our MVP again?

On to the players.

Jordan Hamilton.
I’d characterize Jordan’s game as selfish, somewhat out of control second half, but sandwiched by stellar performances in the first half and overtime. Clearly the open floor helps Jordan and his decision making but he needs to understand that when we get in the half court, he can give the ball up and get it back. That’s how it works when you’re the number one option or the go-to-guy. You should have the confidence that once you give it up, you can go get a bump or two and come out of the back end catching the basketball with a defender running at you—which is an infinitely easier proposition than taking a guy off the dribble 25 feet from the basket 5 seconds into the shot clock.

Still, and I feel like the Manager in Bull Durham when I say this, "This kid has some serious shit." His body control, touch, and size combination are NBA good. And again, he’s one of our top two rebounders. Plus we ran some offense through Hamilton last night and as we continue to do so he’ll get better and better.

Tristan Thompson
Holy.Mother.Of.God. I had no idea this kid was this good. He runs the floor like a gazelle, gets off the floor like a pogo stick, and bodies senior bigs that will play in the NBA like he was one himself. And those are just his physical attributes. Mentally he’s as tough as nails, grabbing every 50/50 board and playing through foul shooting woes to hit big ones down the stretch when he should have had the yips.

Offensively, we haven’t had a big man with that kind of touch as long as I’ve been following the program. I can’t tell you how valuable it is having that turnaround in your arsenal knowing that no one can get to that shot. If he continues to hit that, it will open up his drop step game, as well as the little dump off interior pass to a fellow big or cutter. It’s offensive manufacturing center Barnes has at his disposal and weapon I, quite frankly, didn’t think he’d have at this point in his career.

Defensively, Tristan’s length, quick hops, and the fact he’s natural lefty shot blocker will be hell for the posts he’s guarding. Again, this was a facet of his game I didn’t expect. Just a huge coming out party for the talented Canadian. (Has that sentence ever been typed?)

J’Covan Brown
I like how the kid competes on the defensive end and I think Rick was smart to take him off the ball and limit the risk of him over-thinking out there. Still, he’s got to quit the post-whistle shenanigans and bad body language. When he does, he’ll be a more effective player. Still plenty of growing up to do but he's an instintive, emotional player and Barnes need to find a way to push the right buttons. It's a tough combo right now, at least 8 digits.

Gary Johnson
The main thing Johnson does us give us energy and confidence on the offensive end. His face up game is legit and he needs to remember that before he tries to go finish at the rim against bigger players. Face up not there? Pass, go set a screen, and hopefully get another face up on the way back. It’s winning motion basketball and GJ needs to learn it because his game is tailor made for it because he’s a good shooter and constantly in motion. There aren’t many bigs that can tag and then float with Gary around the perimeter especially when he’s getting a screen or two. Other than that, he played admirably on the glass and on the defensive end which is typical of GJ.

Dogus Balbay
Easily your defensive MVP for locking down the best point guard in the nation, Demetri McCamey, when the game was on the line. McCamey was gassed at the end of the game and that was mainly Doge’s doing. Demetri still had a great shooting game, but Doge forced some tough shots and some turnovers out of the talented Illini guard, and more importantly rarely gave up anything easy. Offensively, Doge is Doge. Get him in an up tempo, open floor game and he deals. Bog him down in a halfcourt and our spacing and his ability to contribute diminishes. I still can’t believe Weber had his guys guarding Balbay 25 feet from the bucket in the first half. Unfortunately in the second half, the Illini were hip to Balbay’s shortcomings and our offense bogged down as a result.

So here is your antidote to that, Rick: Up-tempo, open floor, frenetic half-court motion allowing Balbay to screen and move without the ball. Based on last night, I suspect Rick gets all of that.

Corey Joseph
It’s still growing pains for the young guy but don’t discount the job he did in helping to wear down McCamey which set us up for the win in overtime. Also, don’t discount the two big shots he took down the stretch. The second shot was a little quick but both attempts took extra large huevos. That’s a good sign of things to come especially when his shot starts falling. Which it will.

Alexis Wangmene
Great minutes for Alex going 2-2 from the field and 2-2 from the stripe while being a force on the defensive end. We’ll need that type of post production to augment what Tristan is doing. As in we’ll really need that tonight against Pitt’s monster front line.

I thought it was one of the best coached games Rick has had since he’s been here. It goes against his coaching DNA to play games in the 80’s but Rick did his level best to manufacture fast tempo last night. He had the kids push the ball make or miss, employed some token pressure to speed up the Illini, and had the kids moving well when we did get in a half court. More importantly, I saw Rick stick up for his players with respect to the officials more last night than I have since the TJ Ford days. You can tell he really likes this team, and they seem to be buying in.

As a result, I’m buying in. And I’m really looking forward to tonight’s game.