I ran these on Wednesdays last year but haven't yet decided when they'll regularly feature this time around. We'll start on a Friday and see where it goes.
We're only six games in to the 2007-08 season, but along with all the effusive praise (it has been a great start) have been some easily identifiable weaknesses, as Rick Barnes' club faces some of the same obstacles which ultimately proved fatal last season:
(1) What to do against big, physical teams with imposing frontcourts?
(2) Is there a solution to the abysmal three point defense?
The 2006-07 Longhorns ran, ran, and ran some more, riding the Augustin-Durant fastbreak offense as far as it would take them. Unfortunately, last year that meant a second round NCAA Tournament exit when Texas got matched up against a USC team that worked the 'Horns in the paint while disrupting Texas' offensive attack with physical defense on our undersized guards.
As mentioned, though this year's team has handled its business exceptionally well through six games, many of the same concerns remain. The Longhorns easily dispatched of Tennessee to win the Legends Classic, but the Volunteers are a guard-oriented team that sinks and swims with its full-court press and perimeter shooting. This year's Texas squad simply hasn't faced a team that could test the Longhorns in the frontcourt.
Hello, UCLA. The Bruins starting five is as physically an imposing group as Texas is likely to face this year:
F Alfred Aboya, 6-8 / 235
F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, 6-8 / 230
C Kevin Love, 6-10 / 260
G Russell Westbrook, 6-3 / 187
G Darren Collison, 6-1 / 165
Key reserves? How about Josh Shipp (6-5 / 220) and Lorenzo Mata-Real (6-9 / 240).
Compare that to Rick Barnes' preferred starting five:
F Connor Atchley, 6-10 / 226
F Damion James, 6-7 / 230
G AJ Abrams, 5-11 / 155
G DJ Augustin 5-11 / 180
G Justin Mason 6-2 / 198
Now consider that Connor Atchley is a far cry from an inside presence, while Damion James is far more leaper than banger, and the problem is obvious. Worried about this very issue, astute commentator Kafka asked about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Texas' reserve big men.
- Out injured for now, and a long way from being ready to bang even when healthy.
- He's not incredibly tall, but he is lonnnnng, with arms that go forever. More than that, he's not by any means gangly. The kid's built solid. He's still relatively raw with his basketball skills, but he's a damn useful body to have for a game like Sunday's against UCLA.
- Chappy has nice size, nice hands, nice touch, nice mobility. He's just got a nice little skill set, especially for being a freshman. What he is not yet, though, is an inside presence. Division 1 college basketball banging is still going to overwhelm him at times.
- He is tall. He is thick. He has terrific hands for a man his size. He moves everything in his path. And that therein lies the problem... he's not yet added any polish to his considerable skill set/body type.
What to do against UCLA, then? Fortunately, the Bruins have been terrible from beyond the three point line this season, hitting just 33% of their attempts. At the least, that should give Rick Barnes some confidence in the strategy of packing in a zone, conceding the long jumper, and trying a swarming, inside approach to defending the Bruins' interior game. If UCLA isn't shooting well from outside, Barnes can also get away with playing his two sub-6'0" guards with impunity.
There remains the issue of rebounding, where UCLA absolutely cleans house, snatching a good 40% of their own misses for second looks. That's a scary number for Texas, which ranks a cool 243rd in the nation in disallowing opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds. Zone defense, advantageous as it is in other regards, makes for poor defensive rebounding. Equally worrisome is that if Rick does commit to cleaning the defensive glass, he's taking away Texas' greatest strength - its transition offense.
It's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation for Rick right now, and there's no clear answer as to what Texas should do. (As mentioned at the beginning of this report, if this sounds familiar - it should.) Going to a Jumbo lineup puts Texas into a half court game with a team that's far, far better suited to win it than we are. Sticking with our lineup of run-n-gunners leaves us vulnerable to poor rebounding and easy outside jump shots.
Is there any good news? Sure. Rick's in year two of this run-n-gun system and has a better feel for what his kids can and can't do, where we're vulnerable, and how to manage a gameplan with this kind of team. To be perfectly honest, my instinct is to suggest Rick Barnes orchestrate a balanced, solid, keep-things-close first half before seeing if UCLA is ready to run with us for the final 20 minutes. I think I'd be more generous with my big man play early, play at UCLA's pace for a while, and work through the first half of the game. I'd rest DJ where it was at all possible, sit Abrams immediately if he's being smothered on the perimeter, and focus on not letting UCLA get the best of us with their size and physical play. Then I'd open things up in the second half, run, gun, and see if the Bruins could keep up.
No easy answers, but it should be fun to see Texas face such a stiff test early in the season. If nothing else, we'll have a better feel for how this team needs to play this kind of opponent.