...if you haven't checked out Wiggo's Stetson Recap or Tulane Game Preview, then do so immediately. As many fans were unable to watch the Stetson game, I wanted to add some additional comments. With the gigantic caveat that it was only one game and the smaller caveat that we only played one good offensive half, I think there are some first impressions and storylines from the game that deserve mentioning.
1) An up-Hill climb: As I've said previously, I found the mystery of Matt Hill to be one of the more underrated storylines heading into the season. Slated to be a starter last season (ahead of either Atchley or James), Matt Hill was lost for the season due to an injury. The amount of praise heaped on Matt Hill during last year's Basketball Banquet led me to believe that he would be a key contributor once he got healthy.
Within the last few weeks, I heard whispers that Matt Hill wasn't playing very well, with Varez Ward being the guy to watch coming out of camp. Later, Rick Barnes came out and publicly stated his pleasure with Ward. Any buzz over Hill was nowhere to be found. Against Stetson, Matt Hill played only four minutes and watched Clint Chapman and Gary Johnson get significantly more playing time. While Wangmene also only got a handful of minutes--more on that in a second--his lack of playing time can be explained through his absence from the team due to a personal tragedy. Hill's minutes were truly forgettable, and, until checking the box score, I'd forgotten that he grabbed a rebound. If Matt Hill truly is healthy and recovered, it appears he's fallen far from his pre-injury perch in the pecking order.
To follow up on Wangmene, after he turned the ball over in the first half, Rick Barnes yelled at him "ONE MORE TIME. I'm pulling you if you do that ONE MORE TIME." He didn't turn the ball over again, but he was quickly pulled and didn't go back into the game until there were under three minutes to go.
2) The Dexter Strategy?: Wiggo mentioned that Dexter played pretty well in his twelve minutes (10 points and 4 boards in 12 minutes), but that he was still whistled for 4 fouls. This is all true. However, I wanted to emphasize how much of a role Dexter played in the offense while he was in the game.
While I can't currently find them, there were some upbeat quotes from his teammates over Dexter's ability to score at will in the paint. This confidence was bourne out during the Stetson game, as the ball was repeatedly fed to Pittman in the post area. Along with his five shots, he took two trips to the free throw line, and committed several offensive fouls while the team was attempting to get the ball inside. In fact, Dexter was prominently involved (shot, free throws, offensive foul) in five of the last seven possessions of the game. In his 12 minutes, Dexter was often the hub of the offensive set, with the team immediately looking to pound the ball inside.
Moreso than the last two seasons, I think Rick Barnes will attempt to ruthlessly exploit match-up problems caused by Pittman's size and newfound aggression. Any increase in his offensive role depends on Dexter being able to control himself and avoid turnovers--a big question mark.
3) Minutes crunch for the guards?: By proclaiming Damion James as his solidified small forward, Rick Barnes tamped down any thoughts over starting with a three-guard set. This was further demonstrated by Chapman joining the starting line-up against Stetson. However, the surprising impact of Varez Ward could create a minutes crunch for the guards, which seemed to be rendered moot by the ineligibility of J'Covan Brown.
In playing 18 minutes, Varez Ward showed the skillset that quickly endeared him to Rick Barnes. However, with Balbay making his debut, it will be interesting to see how Barnes juggles playing time among his four guards. Any additional minutes from the guards will come at the expense of one of the role-players in the frontcourt (Pittman, Hill, Wangmene, Chapman).
I don't expect this to be a major problem, or the offensive sets to be completely rigid, but I find the minutes crunch to be one of the more interesting aspects of the season moving forward. With Ward stepping up, the only expected non-contributor on the roster is Harrison Smith. With this much depth, playing time is at a premium, especially for the role players, and Ward's emergence could make the minutes squeeze even more evident.
4) Anecdote over AJ: Wiggo also talked extensively about AJ as a shoot-first PG, but I wanted to highlight the last play of the first half, which came with AJ at the point. As the clock ran down, it was blindingly obvious that he wasn't going to drive/pass and was going to jack up a 3. He took a smaller (!!!!) guard off the dribble and pulled up with his lightning-quick release as the clock ran down. AJ drained the shot, but it was just maddening to me that he left that shot as his only option. It was pretty obvious the offense flowed better with Mason at the point, especially during the mini-run at the beginning'ish of the 2nd half.
I'm really, really, really looking forward to seeing Balbay tonight...