The No. 7/8 Texas Longhorns rode an impressive defensive performance to a 76-51 victory over Tulane on Tuesday night. The story heading into the game was the debut of sophomore point guard Dogus Balbay, and while it was very exciting to see the Turk finally take the floor, the full court man-to-man pressure and the havoc that pressure created became the lead story.
The Longhorn defense caused 25 turnovers, including 16 steals against the Green Wave, and held Tulane to 31% shooting from the floor and 25% shooting from behind the arc. In a particularly impressive series early in the second half, Tulane failed to get the ball past half court on three consecutive possessions. After leading 42-25 at the break, a 17-2 run to start the second put the game firmly away.
I didn't get a chance to review the game last night and there has already been a lot of discussion in a couple of diaries, so I want to make just a few points.
I am less worried about the point guard position now than I was before the season began. Balbay had a very nice debut: 26 minutes with just a single turnover. He was relentless on defense with ball pressure, deflecting passes, and poking away the ball from his man. On offense, he showed excellent court vision and control. Some will point out that he didn't have a single assist, scored just two points, and picked up his dribble too quickly in the half-court. This was his first game. The potential is clearly there. Balbay has great handles, can pass the ball with either hand off the dribble, and is obviously a pass first, shoot second, point guard. He still has a long way to go and removing AJ Abrams or Justin Mason from the starting lineup won't come easily and may not come at all this season, but Rick Barnes has found another valuable contributor. Also, when Balbay sat, it was Justin Mason who assumed the point guard duties and did so extremely well on both ends. He is quickly becoming my favorite player on the team. How do you not love a guy who does everything well-seven points, seven assists, five rebounds, and three steals? This Texas team will not have a single go-to point guard, ala TJ Ford or Augustin, but if Balbay and Mason can share the minutes the rest of the season as well as they did against Tulane, it won't matter.
This team is not as good with AJ Abrams at the point and Abrams is not as good a player at point guard. Abrams needs to score for this team to be successful this season and creating his own shot is not his strength. Abrams is a deadly catch and shoot three-point shooter and is as good as anyone in the country of running his defender through multiple screens to get an open look. Neither of those strengths is possible when he has the ball in his hands and is trying to create for others.
For example, in one of the very opening possessions, AJ had the ball at the top of the key as Mason ran his man off two baseline screens and emerged on the other side for an open look from three. Abrams delivered a great pass and Mason promptly shot an air ball. Texas scored zero points and had no shot at a second look at the basket. Now imagine the same play, the play we saw time and time again last season with AJ running the baseline and being fed by Augustin, with the roles reversed. We can and will run that play successfully this season but we need AJ to be the one catching and shooting. There is no question in my mind that Abrams needs to be on the floor for Texas to have a great team; however, there is also no question in my mind that Texas is a more dangerous offensive team with Abrams off the ball.
This team has a chance to be Rick Barnes's best defensive team since he arrived at Texas. The Longhorns are quick, deep, long, and already appear to be buying into competing on the defensive end. For the first time in a couple of seasons, Barnes can turn his players loose on the defensive end. Foul trouble and having to play zone to rest players are no longer issues. Barnes can have every player pressure the ball full-court and not have to worry. The offense looks good but the team defense is already in conference season form.
And finally a few things to work on:
After two games, I am very impressed and optimistic. This team has a chance to be an elite defensive team and a very dangerous offensive one. The competition stiffens as the Longhorns head to Maui for their next three games. Potential contests with No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 1 North Carolina are possible early next week.
NEXT GAME: Maui Invitational vs. St. Joe's Monday 11/24 2 pm ESPN2