Bad Connor returns. Consternation has ruled amongst the Burnt Orange faithful after a handful of uninspired or flat-out awful performances from Connor Atchley this season. After a breakout season last year, Atchley was expected to at least sustain, if not surpass, those numbers. Not regress. His numbers are down across the board, from scoring to rebounding to field goal percentage. The Oregon game was the first time since March 3, 2007 against Kansas that Atchley did not score in a contest, despite playing 28 minutes against Oregon and only eight in the Kansas game. At least Atchley took nine rebounds and blocked two shots against Oregon--the only statistical categories in which he registered against Villanova were fouls (four) and turnovers (two) in 15 ineffective minutes. It could be that Atchley misses DJ Augustin as much as any Longhorn, as Augustin often got him open looks on pick-and-pop plays that haven't been there as often this season. Considering that the Longhorns are 18-0 in his career when he scores in double figures, Texas needs Atchley to re-discover his game. For a team relatively bereft of perimeter shooting (AJ Abrams has 59% of the team's three pointers), Atchley needs to be productive and efficient.
AJ steps up. There has been no question the last two games that AJ Abrams is the best player on the Longhorn roster. After tying his career high against UCLA with 31 points, Abrams scored a team-high 26 against Villanova, hitting a number of crucial shots, including a three-point play after getting fouled twice by the same player on a leaning jump shot. Unbelievable.
He's returned to his former duties of running off screens, which he probably does as well or better than anyone else in college basketball, forcing the other team, all five players, to exert a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy keeping track of him. And making them pay for nearly every lapse. It occurs to me that containing Abrams on offense is quite similar to breaking the full-court press of a team like Tennessee or Missouri for 40 minutes. It takes a mental and physical toll on players, forcing them to concentrate more than they are used to.
Perhaps most impressively, instead of always catching the ball off screens behind the three point line, Abrams was curling into the lane and hitting his mid-range shot, which is even more money than his long range shot when he is set. As a result, I think he should ditch his ineffective floater and pull up a little farther away from the basket and take jumpshots, which is a higher percentage shot for him.
Couple that with an effort to actually use a pump fake (I think he just lifted his eyebrows on one play to get Dante Cunningham to fly by) and he becomes an efficient offensive player. I've always thought AJ was reluctant to use the shot fake because he needs so little room to get his shot off that he doesn't have to use it to create space, it's almost always there. Whatever the reason, it's a huge relief to have an efficient Abrams, rather than the volume chucker seen in the Notre Dame game, while also totalling a season-high four assists. He hasn't had more than four since his sophomore year, but looking at his freshman numbers reveals much more of a playmaker than Longhorn fans have seen since then--he had five games of five assists and twice totalled eight dimes. It's there, but his banishment off the ball has significantly decreased those totals, as evidenced by his 111 assists his freshman year (only five less than the lead guard he supplanted, Daniel Gibson), followed by less than that number the next two years combined (52 and 55, respectively).
Feeding the post. One issue often raised about the Longhorns early in the season has been their inability to effectively and consistently feed the post. On one play against Villanova, Dexter Pittman found himself matched up against Scotty Reynolds, but his teammates failed to find him. After two early dunks by Sexy Dexy, Villanova fronted him in the post for most of the rest of the game. His teammates have been unable to find all season when fronted. When attempting to enter the post from the ideal 45 degree angle and facing a fronting defender, the other big needs to flash to the top of the circle to run some high-low action, as Pittman should be able to spin off the fronting defender and seal for an entry pass. This should be a point of emphasis every day in practice.
As an update, I mentioned after the Oregon game that Pittman was committing fouls at a rate of once every 3.3 minutes. The following two games against Rice and UCLA, Pittman only played a total of 19 minutes due to match ups, but did not commit a foul before fouling three times in 15 minutes against UCLA--once again back to his original foul rate. As it stands now, his foul rate has decreased to one every four minutes, a positive sign.
Fair warning to the rest of country. Every opposing coach lauds the Longhorn defense both before and after facing Texas. That defense was on full display at the Garden, where Texas forced Villanova into 38% shooting and 19 turnovers, prompting Rick Barnes to speculate that his current squad could turn into the best defensive team he's had at Texas, which is far from hyperbole. As good as they have been so far, Barnes says that they are just getting started, which means there is room for improvement.
The main area of focus is defensive positioning after dribble penetration. Truly great defensive teams make their mark by forcing their opponents to take difficult shots over defenders in the proper defensive position, stationary, with their arms straight in the air. Instead, the Longhorns recently have displayed a tendency to leave their feet on pump fakes, which leads to dribble penetration and then a tendency to reach and hack at players instead of moving their feet to get into position. As a superb defensive coach, Rick Barnes will no doubt make this another point of emphasis for his team and they should improve by the end of the year.
Something to watch for moving forward: How much will this team press? The Longhorns have shown more full-court pressure against the weaker teams on their schedule, but relied on half-court man-to-man against the more talented teams. I believe that Barnes is afraid more athletic, better ball-handling teams will break it the press and get too many easy baskets. Considering the half-court defense rarely gives up easy looks, it's a percentage play to ditch the press against most opponents.
This will be a phenomenal defensive team by the end of the season.
Another flaw? My exploration of the 'Horns' struggle at the foul lilne morphed into it's own post, but it might not be the only aspect of concern for this team. With only one high-volume three point shooter in AJ Abrams, the Longhorns rely extensively on him to make most of their long-range shots. Texas averages 5.8 three point makes on 15.5 attempts per game this season, 3.5 of those made trifectas every game coming from Abrams. Against Notre Dame, the Irish made three more triples than the Longhorns accounting for nine extra points in a one-point game. The Longhorns struggle to make up those points against good outside shooting teams.
Notre Dame is a perfect example of that discrepancy, having made 87 threes on the season, nearly twice as many as the Longhorns at almost 11 per game. That means that in an average game between Texas and Notre Dame, the Longhorns would have to make up about a 15-point difference in made three pointers. As another point of reference, the Tar Heels have made 65 threes this season, roughly two more than the Longhorns.
All this talk illustrates how important an appearance this season by J'Covan Brown could become. Despite the frustration engendered by his inability to become eligible for the first semester, Rick Barnes needs to take a serious look at working him into the fold when he becomes eligible for the spring semester. No redshirt year. Hopefully, Brown shows up in shape and ready to contribute to a team in serious need of another shooter.