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Elite Eight Round Robin Part II: Texas Edition

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Posted the Elite 8 series over on March to March but I thought y'all might be interested here.

Al McGuire used to say he’d only recruit kids that had cracks in their sidewalks. The colorful hall of fame coach from Marquette wanted tough players who weren’t insulated by privilege. He wanted tough ballers from the neighborhood that had been through the wars, so to speak, knowing he could teach them X's and O's, do some mentoring, and then go win championships.

Kind of along those lines, perhaps Texas Coach Rick Barnes should only recruit kids out of Findlay Prep. Players like Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson have helped reinvent the Texas program from monumental underachievers a short season ago to final four caliber world-beaters thanks to this duo’s poise and maturity. The main reason Texas is getting these "just add water" mature ball players is that Findlay Prep’s Coach Michael Peck instills a certain basketball seasoning that sets his kids apart from most AAU-honed hoopsters. Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, and the future UT superstar Myck Kabongo are great examples of Peck’s coaching prowess in that they'll come into a program with the maturity to play right away.

Joseph and Thompson's presence on this team is one of the main reasons Texas is staring a one seed right square in the face.

As for the Texas program overall, Rick Barnes has a done a tremendous job reinventing the Horns on both ends of the floor and that started with reinventing himself. The Texas head man sought off-season advice from Jerry Sloan of the Jazz as well as close friend Bob Knight in an effort to take make the Horns offense—less offensive. The result of Barnes’ pilgrimage has turned Texas from a random screening offense with an over-reliance on individual talent to a diversified attack that incorporates some of Knight’s motion to manufacture buckets, and some of the Jazz’s set concepts to free up stars like Jordan Hamilton. These results have been stunningly successful.

On the other end of the floor, Coach Barnes went back to what he does best, coach defense and toughness. Texas is top 3 in field goal percentage defense mainly because there’s been buy-in from offensive superstars like Jordan Hamilton and J’Covan Brown. In fact, Jordan Hamilton, a player that struggled to stay in front of plodding forwards last season, completely shut out Texas A&M’s explosive scorer Khris Middleton last week. Hamilton completely smothered the Aggie star, looking like a Stacey Augmon doppelganger. Not to be outdone, J’Covan Brown had great success defensively staying in front of Kansas’ star freshman Josh Selby in Texas upset win at the Phog. Texas ability to simply stay in front of dribbler has seen an astounding improvement over the last year.

The defensive transformation wouldn’t be complete without an eraser on the backline of the defense, and Tristan Thompson is just that. He’s one of the best shotblockers the Horns have ever had, and his ability to erase cutters and dribble penetration have made it easier on the Horns perimeter folks. Guards Cory Joseph and Dogus Balbay who are tremendous on the ball defenders that have understood ball-you-man principles since birth, and Matt Hill is one of the best positional post defenders in the Conference. Add strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright to the mix and you have a completely different club than last year’s disappointing bunch. Under Wright’s watch, the Horns have made transformational gains in the weight room and that’s translated to defensive success on the court.

All in all this a team no one wants to face in the Big Dance.

Strengths. Diversity on offense is where it starts for the Horns. They can iso you and get a mismatch with Hamilton considering there are so few true small forwards size-wise in the college game. Texas also has two face up forwards in Gary Johnson and Tristan Thompson who can lift help away from the bucket for their teammates or can go against your slow-footed posts. If Texas wants to play a more defensive minded personnel group, they can run motion to manufacture offense. Defensively, the Horns are one of the best teams in the country given their combination of superb on ball defenders, length on the wing, and a bona fide flyswatter near the bucket.

Weaknesses. There are two as far as I can see and one’s nitpicky. First, I don’t think the Horns have the firepower on the glass that some of the elite teams do. Texas relies on Hamilton and their big guards to pull boards in order to make up for deficiencies on the glass. That won’t work against your mammoth frontcourts.

The other deficiency is a lack of a true creator at the point guard spot to create offense up against shot clocks or in tight games. J’Covan Brown could be that guy but he’s too inconsistent to be deemed the answer as a lead guard at this point. That doesn't mean the Horns are without answers in terms of individual creators. The reason the weakness is nitpicky is that Barnes has incorporated Hamilton in the creator role using some of the iso stuff with the ultra-talented wing. We've seen ballscreens and 1-4 low iso sets that allow Jordan to create off the dribble with great success. See the last two minutes of the Kansas Game. Very few forwards have the quickness to guard Hamilton twenty feet from the bucket so doubles will be created and open teammates will be found, otherwise Hamilton will simply go get buckets.

Wheelhouse Elite 8 Opponents. Duke, Kentucky, Notre Dame. Duke doesn’t have the size inside to get anything more than a stalemate against the Horns’ frontcourt. Texas also has the defenders in Hamilton and Johnson to tag Duke’s best player Singler out on the perimeter without fear of interior reprisal. On the other end, Duke would struggle to matchup with Hamilton if they wanted to go to their 3 guard personnel. If the Devils went big with a frontcourt of Kelly, Plumlee, and Singler, the Longhorns would have their way with Duke’s pressure due to a serious quickness advantage at most spots on the floor. See St John’s.

As for Kentucky, their lack of bruisers in the frontcourt plays right into Texas’ hands. Texas defense is a matchup nightmare for the Wildcats because the Horns are disciplined and won’t be overwhelmed athletically by Terrance Jones and company. On the other end, the young Wildcats wouldn’t be able to handle the Longhorn’s diverse offensive attack because they struggle to guard in general.

Notre Dame, for similar reasons. Lack of a bruising frontcourt and lack of quickness on the perimeter.

Elite 8 Matchup Nightmares. Pitt and UConn. Of course, these teams being good foils for Texas stands to reason because they’ve both defeated the Horns this season even if both games did come down to one possession. Both Pitt and UConn have the perfect antidote for the Horns which is a big frontcourt to take advantage of the Horns’ lack of size on the glass and elite guard play to control tempo to manufacture offense against Texas’ stifling defense. Out of these two, I think Pitt is the tougher matchup because they have multiple scoring option on the perimeter and in the paint.

UConn is Kemba Walker and everyone else, so it's much easier for the Horns to take away what UConn does best. Remember, if not for foul shooting, the Horns likely run UConn out of the gym in Austin.

As for Pitt, Wannamaker and Gibbs in the backcourt and a frontcourt that goes basically 6 deep pose a stiffer challenge for Texas. Now if Gibbs can't get his MCL healed this season, then you have to scratch Pitt off the list. Gibbs basically shot the Horns into the loss column in the first meeting so it stands to reason the Panthers wouldn't fair as well against Texas without a healthy Gibbs.

As for the rest of the Elite 8 Round Robin, continue to check out March To March.

Check out Round Robin Part I: the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Up Next the Kansas Jayhawks.