Defense Leads Longhorns over Stetson

The pre-season top ten ranked Texas Longhorns shook off the jitters of the season opener and cruised to a 68-38 victory over the Stetson Hatters at the Erwin Center on Friday night. Despite a sloppy start, some ugly free throw woes, and a general lack of offensive flow, there was a lot to like about tonight's performance.

Though the Longhorns return four starters from last year's team and are widely seen as one of the favorites in the Big XII, they did not start quickly against Stetson. Texas committed 11 first half turnovers, got to the free throw line just twice in the opening twenty minutes, and led only 29-18 at the break.

The second half was a different story, however. After missing most of the first half with an injured chin and a trip to the locker room, Connor Atchley returned to the floor and gave the Longhorns a much needed lift on both ends. In the second half, Texas committed just four turnovers, attacked the rim to the tune of 14 free throw attempts, and continued their stifling full-court man-to-man defense.

Position breakdowns after the jump...

Games like this, featuring gross mismatches in talent, are much more about the Longhorns than they are about their opponents. So, instead of going through the normal review of how we won and why, this review will focus on a player-by-player review of the Texas squad.

Rick Barnes started AJ Abrams at point, Justin Mason at shooting guard, Damion James at the wing, Clint Chapman at power forward, and Connor Atchley at center, but Barnes experimented with different lineups and substituted frequently throughout.

GUARDS

AJ Abrams played the first half at point guard and the second half at shooting guard but attacked the entire game with a scorer's mentality. AJ led all players with 21 points, including five-of-nine from behind the arc, while contributing just a single assist. In the first half with AJ at the point, the offense stalled. The other four players seemed content to stand in place and wait for Abrams to try to create his own shot. While AJ did hit some nice jumpers off the dribble and was the reason for the double digit halftime lead, Abrams is still a shoot-first/pass-second guard. He has no trouble handling the ball in the half court or breaking the press like a true point guard, but he looks for his shot first and looks to get his teammates involved second--like... well, a shooting guard. I don't mean for this to sound excessively negative toward AJ; Abrams is an integral part of this team and has been a huge part of the success of the Texas program over the last three years. He is a fantastic guard with one of the quickest releases and purest strokes that I've even seen, should continue to lead the team in scoring throughout the year, and will definitely go down in Texas basketball history as one of the top fouryear players in program history. But... he is not a point guard.

Justin Mason is not a true point guard either. However, the offense with him at the point in the second half flowed better: James had room to attack from the wing, Connor and Abrams had space from the wing and the corner to get open looks from three, and the post was fed more easily and with more regularity. Basically, the team looked more cohesive. Some of that seamlessness must be attributed to the presence of Atchley, though, and not all to Mason's move to the point. However, after two halves of basketball, one with Abrams at the point and the other with Mason at the point, the clear leader for future minutes at point guard is Mason.

Freshman Varez Ward played 18 minutes in his collegiate debut and, other than clanking six straight free throws, showed that he will be able to contribute this season. The offensive polish and pure shooting stroke are not there yet but the defense certainly is.  He was particularly impressive with his lateral quickness on both ends. Along with Mason, I think Barnes has found another lockdown perimeter defender.

FORWARDS

If there is one weakness in terms of depth for  Texas, it is a solid backup at the small forward position. Damion James is really the only wing on the team and a lot will be asked of DaMo this season. James started the season with a solid 13 point and seven rebound performance in his 32 minutes of action. He also showed a couple of beautiful pull-up jumpers from just inside the arc. There is no doubt that playing one-on-one against Kevin Durant all summer long will pay big dividends this season. In my mind, the individual goals for James of 1st team All Big XII and, possibly, 1st team All America, are attainable.

Clint Chapman and Gary Johnson rotated minutes at the power forward spot with Johnson proving to be the more efficient player this evening. While Chap missed all three of his attempts from the floor and grabbed just two rebounds in 13 minutes, Johnson scored 6 points and snagged 7 rebounds in 17 minutes. It is hard to see either of these players separating themselves too much from the other this season. Chapman is more polished offensively and can get his shot off more easily with his back-to-the-basket but Johnson is the stronger defender and rebounder. Having two--or maybe three or four with Alexis Wangmene and Matt Hill--consistent contributors at power forward helps give Barnes plenty of frontcourt options. I think Barnes will be pleased with 10 points and 12 rebounds per game combined from the four position.

CENTER

Connor Atchley started at center and is the key to ‘Horns' success on offense. Connor missed most of the first half with a cut or bruise to the chin. He more than made up for his missed time in the second. Atchley's stat line in 24 minutes was 14 points, 5 boards, and 3 blocks. When Atchley sets high ball screens, good things happen--the point guard can turn the corner and attack the lane, the ball gets doubled and kicked back to him for the open three, or the defense collapses to help stop penetration and James or Abrams become open on the wings. Without Connor in the first half, Texas shot 46% from the floor and scored 29 points. With Connor in the second half, Texas shot 62% from the floor and scored 39 points.

Backing up Connor and contributing in spurts was Dexter Pittman. The good news is Big Dex scored a quick 10 points and grabbed 4 rebounds in his 12 minutes of play. The bad news is that Dexter also had 3 turnovers and was whistled for 4 fouls in those same dozen minutes. Pittman looks to be in better shape and I do believe he will be a much bigger contributor this year than during his first two seasons, however, he must show better body control and stay out of foul trouble to contribute consistently.

Overall, this was a very good first game of the season. No one got seriously hurt, the game was never in doubt, and Barnes was able to play the whole team in lots of different combinations. It was clear tonight that Texas is an extremely deep team and, I think, already an acceptable defensive team with room to grow. It was also clear tonight that this team could suffer without a true point guard and also will find itself in trouble against stronger competition unless the free throw shooting improves. We will reevaluate those concerns after the debut of Dogus Balbay on Tuesday night.

Box Score

NEXT GAME: Home vs. Tulane  - Tuesday 11/18 7:00 p.m. Fox Sports SW

 

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