No. 22 Texas Longhorns 67, No. 12 Michigan State Spartans 55
It's common knowledge that basketball is a game of matchups. Teams try to exploit matchup advantages on the offensive end, and then cover for matchup weaknesses on the other. It's rather elementary, so much so that it has almost become a sort of coaching dogma in college hoops. "That team has a pair of 7 footers and an elite point guard so we've got to play Hill, Wangmene, and Doge Balbay for 25 minutes!"
Nonsense. The really good teams don't worry about matching up to an opponent. They make the opponent matchup to them. For Texas, as evidenced by the UNC game and last night's drubbing of Michigan State, that time is now.
Texas plays comfortably in its own, albeit undersized skin so why not roll out a frontcourt of Johnson, Hamilton, and Thompson? If you want to throw a couple bigs out there to punish the Horns in the paint, we'll manage it by doubling, pressuring, and then running you to death. On our end, we can go to empty post look and face up your bigs and make them defend like guards.
Can your 7 footer stay in front of Thompson 10 feet from the bucket? Can your power forward float out to 15 feet with Gary Johnson? What about your small forward? We have one of those and he's elite. Chances are you don't.
Last night Texas embraced who they are against a pretty solid club on the road. Who are they, you ask? They're a young team with one of the most dynamic, unconventional frontcourts in college hoops, backed up by above average guard play, and solid depth. I like who we are and you should too. On to the grades.
Gary Johnson. A. He's a walking mismatch on both ends. Fours struggle to guard him 15 feet in, especially when their other big who has help duties is being lifted away from the bucket by Tristan Thompson's face up credibility. In Scipio's MBA program they called this synergy.
What Johnson lacks in size on the other end is made up by tenacity and that nearly extinct animal in the college game today--the true post up power forward. It's not cool to be Kevin McHale, and Gary Johnson's happy about that.
Last night Johnson eviscerated Roe/Green on the offensive end by pulling MSU's bigs away from the bucket and out of their comfort zone, and then going to work to the tune of 5-11 shooting. On defense, GJ more than held his own with five big boards and suffocating defense on MSU's point forward Draymond Green holding the big man to 1-8 shooting before fouling him out. Just a supreme effort by the senior post.
Tristan Thompson. A. He's Batman to Gary Johnson's Robin. Everything Gary does well on offense complements Thompson's face up game, and vice versa. When TT power dribbles by a 6-10 guy I'm sure that players, coaches, and fans alike are wondering where the help is. The answer is he's sitting 15 feet from the bucket with Gary Johnson. While the deployment is exquisite, what truly makes things go is Thompson's explosive first step and finishing ability. 6'9" cats aren't supposed to move like that.
Aside from stats, I was especially pleased with Thompson's effort to go along with his floor game. Thompson was a one man wrecking crew on the glass pulling five offensive boards, most of which were 50/50 balls. He finished the night with 15 boards. Just a huge performance for the young man.
Jordan Hamilton. A-. He's the instant offense X-factor that every team needs. It's nice to run some motion and find a layup after five passes, but that's not reality on most possessions. Every team needs a player like Jordan that can rise up from 24 feet for easy money. Or knife his way through three defenders and hit a tough floater.
While individual skill is a luxury, it's incumbent on Hamilton to use his powers for good instead of evil and pick his spots for heroics. If last night is any indication I think Hamilton is getting a handle on this shot selection stuff.
Stuffing the stat sheet, Jordan's eight rebounds is a testament to his effort and the 3:1 assist / turnover ratio tells me he's playing unselfishly and under control. I give him a minus because once again he got beat for a layup on a simple curl cut from the top of the key. It angers me because it's sixth grade stuff. You have to jump towards the ball when it's passed to the wing because it positions you between the ball and the cutter. It's an elementary move. It's not rocket surgery. Other than that, Jordan had a terrific game.
Cory Joseph. B+. Not a really good shooting game for Joseph but he made up for that with terrific defense on Lucas and a solid effort running the show evidenced by the lone turnover. Cory's too good a shooter to go 3-12 from the floor so I'm not worried about it, but I was impressed that Cory didn't let his off night with the stroke affect the rest of his game. I also love how he's savvy enough to dig down towards the baseline and grab long or loose rebounds that get away from the bigs. All three of Cory's boards were of this variety and it's heady plays like this that separate the good players from the great ones.
J'Covan Brown. B. Both of his 3's were horrible shots you can get at any point in the shot clock and that just can't happen, especially when you have an advantage in the frontcourt. Conversely, both of Brown's assists were big time dimes that reveal a sharp contrast to Brown's shot selection. It's frustrating because you know the young man has the game to be elite, he just needs to put it all together between the ears.
Brown also had a great contest of a Lucas jumper that he got a piece of and the ball ended up going the other way for a layup. Going forward, Brown may be your ex-factor because his game compliments Cory Joseph and having that third deep shooter on the floor is considered the Holy Grail by most coaches.
Dogus Balbay. B+. He gives you what you'd expect out of him by now--great ball pressure, athleticism, and quickness on the positive side of the ledger. He's still a huge liability on the offensive end however. This isn't Izzo's first rodeo, and the Hall of Fame coach made the correct decision by not guarding Balbay. Which reminds me, I find it odd that most coaches either fail to read or just ignore the scouting report in non-conference play. Why do teams continue to make the game difficult by pressuring Doge? It's a head-scratcher.
Matt Hill. A-. Another great job of selling out on the defensive end and on the glass, while providing quality frontcourt depth. The five points on 2-4 shooting was a nice bonus, but I'd rather Matt shelve the little 15 footer in lieu of the catch and dunk. Overall Hill's contribution has been undeniably important thus far. Kudos to him for bringing it every night.
Coaching. A+. Our open post attack is a thing of beauty and it plays well off of our screen and roll scheme. When you can lift bigs out of the paint and away from the bucket it makes it difficult to establish your help-side defense when trying to defend the ball screen. In other words, it's the perfect counter to bread buttering screen and roll.
Last night MSU defended the initial ball screen well, holding Cory in check, but we still ended up getting dunks and fouls because Barnes has a real honest to goodness offense this year. We're making teams pay when they sell out to take something away.
Barnes has also gotten out of his comfort zone by extending pressure a bit more which created the correct tempo for our kids and a dozen or so transition points for good measure. More importantly, Coach Barnes has embraced the strength of this team which is the Hamilton, Johnson, and Thompson troika, backed by the emerging Cory Joseph. It's not an identity that's congruent with traditional bruising Barnes teams, but it works.
Just ask Tom Izzo.