A win is a win is a win - especially when it's on the road, and especially when it's over the Land Thieves. So, we must celebrate today's 68-58 win in Norman.
That said, today's game was terribly difficult to watch after the first 11 minutes of the game, when Texas built a 30-14 lead. After that point, Oklahoma head coach Jeff Capel decided to pay homage to his predecessor and more or less devolved the game into a ThugBall contest. Texas managed 14 field goal attempts in the second half and - even more amazingly - only made two.
That wasn't a typo, I'm afraid. Texas was limited to fourteen field goal attempts in the second half. With two makes.
Fortunately, the 'Horns made good on 22 of their 30 free throw attempts, enough to hold on for the win.
Today's game was a bizarre one - odd enough that I want to mix up the postgame report and jump straight into player evals, report card style.
Kevin Durant He hit seven of his first eight shots, made Texas' only two field goals (and 8-of-8 freethrows) in the second half, played solid defense, and finished with 32 points and 10 rebounds. So much for him being gassed, huh? When I wrote there would be games Texas needed Durant to explode and carry the team, I had contests like today's in mind. With the Sooners playing physical, pounding defense, Texas' young team had trouble creating good scoring chances. Enter: Durant, who can get his look whenever he wants it, either by firing a perimeter shot (five threes today), working the edge of the paint for a clean look from 8-10 feet, or drawing fouls and getting to the line (9 for 10 for the day). He's the best player in college basketball, and it's not close. Only two sloppy turnovers keep today's performance from being perfect. Grade: A
DJ Augustin His box score stats look solid enough (18 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds), but it's a deceiving line. (When Bill Simmons said Augustin's stats can be misleading, he had games like today's in mind. And is right.) DJ was an important part of Texas winning today, but he helped Texas win despite having a pretty tough afternoon. Personally, I blame Barnes for Augustin's struggles, as the freshman point guard just kept going for the dribble drive down the lane over and over and over, despite OU's defense being packed in to prevent him from getting a clean look near the basket. It was Barnes' job to coach DJ to running something different, but it just never came. Most maddeningly, it's not the first time that teams have packed things in to slow down Augustin, either. Remember Kansas State? They muscled Augustin into an ineffective day of basketball, too, only on that day, Texas didn't defend well enough to get the win. (More on this later.) DJ's an outstanding young player, but he needs to develop his ability to create looks for teammates without just crashing through a packed lane. Grade: B-
AJ Abrams AJ did what he was supposed to do in the offense, taking shots off screens and generally not trying to force action by creating his own shot. He also - for the fourth straight game - played above average defense, admirably chasing OU's shooters around the perimeter and making them earn their outside looks. Abrams was on the floor for 38 minutes today, and that's a problem. Again - AJ didn't do anything wrong today; the problem is that he can't create his own shot. And teams that can defend the perimeter with physical guards keep Abrams from contributing much to the offense. It'd be nice, in games like this, if Barnes played Abrams less and went to a bigger lineup of one sort or another. On a team with better depth, Abrams would have only played about 20 minutes today - being brought in as a useful role player to keep OU honest. On this team, he plays 38 minutes, a large chunk of which he was neutered on offense. Grade: B
Damion James James finished with 7 points and 11 rebounds - both good numbers - and some excellent defense, but he was a real liability in the half court offense today. On more than one occasion, Durant swung the ball to James after being double-teamed and Damion just stood there and held the ball, doing nothing while the defense recovered. It wasn't like the Oklahoma State game, when James was aggressive to the hoop on those passes off the double team. Today, he just sort of stood around. Along with everyone else: a good day on defense, a shaky day in the half court offense. Grade: B
Jay Mason Only two points for Mason against a physical defense, but he did his best to contribute in other ways, playing strong defense and nabbing 10 boards. This review is a broken record, though - like everyone else, Mason was standing around too often on offense. Grade: B-
Connor Atchley Atchley was pretty awful today, finishing with 2 points, 1 rebound, 0-for-2 from the charity stripe, and 1 turnover in 10 minutes of action. I don't know if his ankle's still bothering him or if he's just struggling right now, but Bad Connor boarded the bus for Norman. We need bigger, better minutes from him in our next two. Grade: D
Dexter Pittman Big Dex had a nice hustle play in the first half that led to a Texas basket, but he was mostly a non-factor. It's too bad, too, because he had great position in the post on several possessions in a row, and Texas' guards refused to try an entry pass. At this point, Dexter's just sort of eating minutes and contributing a bit on rebounding. I think he's going to develop into quite a player, but expecting much more from him this year looks like it's wishcasting. Barnes wants Dexter to play a certain role, and that appears to be defined by not trying to do too much (something he's certainly guilty of at times). Grade: B
Rick Barnes We should probably give Rick two grades for today. On the one hand, the half court offense was unforgivably hard to watch. In possession after possesion during the second half, Texas would stand around, set a weak screen for Augustin, and watch him try to penetrate a wall of strong Sooners expecting his arrival. We did a decent job of getting Durant the ball, and KD used his freaky gifts to get to the foul line, but there were far too many wasted possessions where Texas looked clueless and didn't even run the ball through Durant.
On the other hand, this Texas team has steadily amped up its defense since the Texas A&M mess, to the point where we're making life on offense damn difficult for the opposition. We knew Rick could teach this, and whatever he's done to get it in these kids' heads that they have to defend or die trying, it's worked. For that, he deserves a lot of credit, because when you play great defense like Texas has been of late, you can win any number of ways - including ugly, as we did today.
It's also probably not fair to pin everything on Barnes - not when the referees let Jeff Capel and the crowd turn the game into a heavyweight fight. The Sooners were hell bent on winning this thing with blood, and this Texas team doesn't run a good enough halfcourt offense to fight through that with much efficacy. Fortunately, Texas exploded out of the gates in the first half and made enough free throws, or this might have been one of those 55-54 nailbiter wins. As such, Texas and Rick Barnes got the job done the best they could, riding a good day on the glass and on defense (plus KD heroics) for the win. As awful as it was to watch us play offense in the second half, the sum of the 40 minute performance was a gutty 10 point road win over the hated Sooners. Grade: B-
Final Thoughts I covered most of the big picture game stuff in Rick Barnes' section, but let's go up a level to the big picture season situation to conclude. With the win, Texas now sits at 11-3 in conference play and controls their destiny down the stretch. The 'Horns have won five straight and done so with above average defense. The offense has been better some games than others, but the defense has been very strong throughout. If this young team really understands the value of ferocious defense, then we're in infintely better shape than we were heading into College Station, when we felt like we had to outscore every opponent to have a chance to win.
Winning track meets is for "Tournament" Tom Penders clubs - groups of players who can't and don't want to defend. Penders' squads overachieved on some nights (and years) when the offense would get hot enough at the right times, but far too often they were a disappointment. Losses to bad teams were not uncommon.
That hasn't - and likely never will - happen with Rick Barnes' teams, and that's because of his proven ability to coach defense. Yeah, I wish he could get a motion offense working like Bobby Knight and John Thompson III do, but on the whole, Barnes gets a lot out of his teams - periodic half court struggles be damned. And now we're seeing this young team take their defense seriously, and the end result is five straight wins. We haven't beaten the cream of the crop in the conference during the current win streak, but we're doing what we need to be doing in February - something we shouldn't undervalue.
Texas could very well get to 12 wins in the conference this year - something I thought near-impossible just six weeks ago. We've locked up the #3 seed in the conference, are steadily climbing the polls and bracket projections, and are showing signs that we can win games in more ways than one. All in all, this is as good as we fans have been able to feel all season. We'll be underdogs in our last two games, and though you have to worry about our ability to score enough on two teams as talented on defense as A&M and Kansas, you also have to like the progress our own guys have shown on the defensive end.
Congratulations to Rick Barnes and the Longhorns for another win.
Keep 'em coming. . .