Texas has been so good thus far that there simply hasn't been much room to gripe. When you blow out New Mexico State and Tennessee on a neutral court, then steal a true road win at Pauley Pavilion... well, the press clippings are gonna be glowing. Deservedly so.
We've also mentioned that at this rate, Texas could very well find itself in contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. That's a long way from now, but as we discussed on Tuesday, it's a goal worth keeping an eye on - even early in the season.
As several have noted, however, this team is not without flaws. Nor, they argue, should we believe that Rick has taken a gigantic leap forward as a coach in just one offseason. I agree with both points. Even though Rick and his team deserve every bit of positive attention they've received thus far, there's a lot of basketball left to be played and the competition will continue to improve as the season wears on. So must we.
With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to compare Texas' profile with that of last year's NCAA champs, the Florida Gators. Though there's no single profile that a champion must have, what the Gators accomplished over the last two seasons is certainly something to strive for. At the least, we can look at the things they did well that Texas is not (and vice versa). Presumably, a team which can excel in many of the same areas as such a complete champion is going to be in good shape.
As always, we prefer rate over counting stats, and turn to Ken Pomeroy for the data:
Offensively, there’s a lot to like so far. It’s difficult to imagine that Texas can maintain this level of efficiency throughout the season, but even 90% of this performance would be outstanding. The only worrisome offensive indicator is the infrequency with which Texas gets to the foul line, but there’s some good news here, as well: outside Florida, none of last year’s Final Four participants (Georgetown, Ohio State, UCLA) finished in the top 100 in trips to the charity stripe/possession. It doesn’t appear to be much of a barrier to success.
Defensively... well, we’re nothing like the 2007 Gators. We’ve discussed this before, but Texas is in a tough spot defensively, not big or deep enough to play man-to-man for 40 minutes, but not long enough on the perimeter to adequately defend the three pointer in a zone. That didn’t hurt us against a poor shooting team like UCLA, but Texas has and will pay a price against teams that can drain the long jumper.
Adjustments going forward? Offensively, I’m just thrilled with the improvements I’ve seen this season. We’re using AJ Abrams like Reggie Miller and Rip Hamilton, running him around the half court, making his defender chase, and setting double screens to create shots. At the very least, he occupies an opposing defender full time. More importantly, he’s hitting his two point shots much, much better than a year ago, diversifying his scoring arsenal, and greatly improving his worth when the three point shot isn’t there. Connor Atchley is doing a fantastic job of playing the high post: he’s a good enough shooter that you have to defend him 19 feet from the basket, and he’s a good enough passer that we can run plays through him.
Rick’s also doing a good job with Augustin, and as good as he’s been, I think he’s got room to improve. Remember, it’s only December, and this group is still learning to play with one another. I think we’ll continue to see fewer "clear out for DJ" plays and more of the offensive sets that get everyone involved. And yet, having a guy like Augustin is so valuable because, when nothing else is working, spacing the floor and letting him create is still an option.
On defense, we are what we are on the perimeter, but the addition of Gary Johnson should help the rotation some. It’s not clear that there’s much we can do to overcome the vulnerability to perimeter shooting, as Augustin and Abrams are going to be out on the floor 90% of the time. They’re just going to have to rotate hard, get their hands up, and harass as best they can. The three point shot is a scary, scary equalizer, but rare is the team that’s deadly both inside and out. If Texas is getting torched by an opponent from the perimeter, Rick can always go man to man and force that team to earn the points inside.
All in all, this is the best position I can remember Rick Barnes being in at this point in the season. Tough tests await the ‘Horns, but it’s so far, so good. Houston area fans need to take a couple hours on Saturday and head down to the Toyota Center to catch this team take on Rice. You’ll be glad you did.