Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Atchley. Through the first half of the Michigan State game on Saturday, Connor Atchley looked for all the world like the lost little boy wandering onto the basketball court that he has for most of the season, aka Bad Connor or Mr. Hyde. He played only three minutes in the first half, continuing his disturbing trend of missing badly, launching several airballs. Rick Barnes pulled him from the game, swearing at and verbally berating Atchley, finally questioning his manhood.
The second half brought quite a reversal in Atchley's play. Barnes went repeatedly to a stagger screen play using Gary Johnson and Connor Atchley as the screeners in an attempt to get AJ Abrams open. The play failed to spring Abrams, but did produce some good looks from three for Atchley, two of which he knocked down following a made jumper, a two-minute stretch that produced all eight of his points in the game.
The hot stretch didn't last, however, as Atchley failed to connect on his next three shots, including another open look from the stagger screen set and another on a designed play late in the game after a timeout, any one of which would have put Atchley into the magical double digit realm in which the Longhorns have never lost over Atchley's career. A make on the first of Atchley's three misses, an open look on a possession he kept alive with an offensive rebound, would have put the Longhorns up by eight with a little more than 12 minutes to go. The last miss would have put the Longhorns up by two with a little more than two minutes left and constituted the last good look from long range that the Longhorns would have in the game.
Just like a schizophrenic battling to keep one personality dominant over another, Atchley's struggle is completely internal. One prevalent story from the media this year is that Rick Barnes has spent time doing yoga to lose weight recently, even having his team participate in the practice. It's relevant because yoga (and, as a corollary, mindfulness meditation) helps the practitioner establish the kind of relaxed intensity, the necessary transcendence, if you will, that alleviates tension and allows integration into the flow of the game.
When Atchley shoots the ball completely without touch, the reasons are twofold. First, Atchley isn't mentally ready to shoot the ball as he catches it, followed by the decision that he needs to shoot because he's open. Secondly, Atchley misses because of the tension in his muscles on release--he's not letting the moment act through him to produce the fluid, relaxed stroke that allows him to shoot a high percentage from long range. Yoga and mindfulness meditation have helped me greatly shooting the basketball and I believe they could do the same for Atchley. It's an understatement to say that Atchley needs to play well for the Longhorns to be successful this season.
Offensive offense. if there has been one underlying frustration throughout the course of my six seasons watching Longhorn basketball, it's the often offensive nature of offensive play under Rick Barnes. My first experience was the complete and utter lack of understanding on how to beat a zone defense against Syracuse in the 2003 Final Four. Since then, there have been moments like the horrid offensive performance against USC in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, a game in which the Longhorns had no idea how to attack the Trojan defense and Barnes failed to call a timeout early in the game to stem momentum (Barnes was the anti-Popovich that day) and redirect the Longhorn offense.
The same type of failure by Barnes to implement or run any type of coherent offensive scheme beyond "random ball screens" left the Longhorns short against Michigan State, a game in which the differences between Barnes and a coach like Tom Izzo were never more apparent. Michigan State was consistently able to get easy looks by running their offensive sets, while the Longhorns were left with scattershot offensive possessions often punctuated by Justin Mason pounding the ball hoping AJ Abrams could free himself coming off screens, a strategy completely unsuccessful all game.
The adjustment to run Abrams off of staggered double screens helped free Atchley, but Michigan State quickly adjusted after Atchley hit two three-pointers. At that point, the Longhorns continued running the play, experiencing a severe case of diminished returns. Barnes, as has been the case throughout his coaching career, was late in adjusting by putting Abrams on the ball to attempt to create his own shots. I'm going to disagree with AW that Abrams can't shoot off the dribble, because he can. Since the offense relies so much on Abrams hitting several three-pointers per game, when the offense stagnates, Abrams needs to ball in his hands and the freedom to hunt his own shot, similar to what Barnes told DJ Augustin to do last year.
In fact, Abrams should have shot the ball himself on the last possession instead of passing to Justin Mason, but the lack of offensive execution is on Rick Barnes for leading a team that failed to make a field goal for five and a half minutes, a stretch that saw a 61-56 lead disintegrate. Of all the great things Rick Barnes has done for the Texas program, installing an actual offensive system has not been one of them and it will continue to cost Texas basketball games.
Lack of shooting kills entry passing. Dogus Balbay has played limited minutes as he adjusts to the collegiate game, but part of the reason he hasn't played more is his inability to hit any type of jump shot. The result is that teams back off of him defensively, cutting off his driving angles and disrupting any attempts at entry passes. The same thing is happening to Justin Mason, as teams rightly have no respect for the type of jump shooting that has produced only four made three-pointers on 18 tries (a horrific 22%). Trips Right has your solution, noting that Balbay should not be on the floor unless Atchley, James, and Abrams are as well:
The lane is much too congested when opponents can focus on chasing AJ off of perimeter jumpers, and help everywhere else. Secondly, that's why the entry passer has to be a threat to shoot the basketball. Another strategy would be quick reversal to a shooter as the entry option and a cross screen or exchange on the low block to the other side of the floor if the on ball defender is playing soft as Barnes states. Defenses can't overplay AJ, play soft on Mason, and overplay the opposite wing all at the same time. Barnes needs to start flipping the floor and make a concerted effort to get our posts involved. It's harry high school bullshit to chalk up failings in the post area to teams playing soft on the first and only entry guy in an offensive possession.
Another solution is to put the ball in the hands of Abrams more often, since defenders have to respect his shot too much to be able to play off and disrupt the passing lanes into the post. Moving Abrams onto the ball in three-guard sets will also allow Justin Mason to attack the offensive glass--one of his greatest attributes--while maintaining the type of court balance that allows for consistent and effective transition defense.
What happened to the aggressive Mase? While his decision-making with the ball has been nothing short of outstanding in the last several games, as evidenced by nearly three straight games without a turnover (until the late botched dribble handoff with Abrams against MSU), it's Justin Mason's lack of scoring that is distressing. After scoring in double figures for three straight games, Mason has not scored more than six points in the last five contests, making only eight of 26 shots. Not respecting his jump shot, teams are sagging off Mason and disrupting his driving and passing lanes, which severely limits his effectiveness. The Longhorns desperately need Mason to be aggressive attacking the basket, but it's hard to see how he will be able to do that without forcing defenders to guard him tightly or close out hard on swing passes. The solution may involve the pick-and-roll basketball with Damion James, Connor Atchley, or Gary Johnson that got Johnson several open looks from 15-18 feet against Michigan State. Defenses adjusting to that play may allow driving lanes for Mason.
Defensive mirage. Texas is playing a style of man-to-man defense reminiscent of Duke's defensive strategy, relying on heavy on-ball pressure anywhere in the half court, along with big men hedging hard on screens and depending on crisp defensive rotations from the other big. The strategy is susceptible to dribble penetration, offensive rebounding, and quick passes to the flashing big who just set the screen. The Longhorns have had trouble with all three of those areas in the last several games, severely limiting their defensive prowess and raising concerns about whether this will truly be the best defensive basketball team in the Rick Barnes era.
Justin Mason failed to give the extremely quick Kalin Lucas adequate cushion on the perimeter, resulting in numerous breakdowns off the dribble and second-chance opportunities for Michigan State. Goran Suton had an extremely efficient 7-8 shooting game, largely because of failed rotations after Suton set screens. The Longhorns will have to consider playing under screens against guards like Lucas that don't shoot well, which eliminates the need for such strong hedging. Either that or the defensive rotations need to improve. I can't find the exact numbers, but by my recollection, the Spartans made no more than several shots outside the paint in the first half. No matter the exact number, the point is that the Longhorns did a horrific job defending the paint, a trend that needs to change and change quickly for a team that is supposed to be excellent defensively.
From the Land of Miscellany. Blazzinken has your Devon Kennard update...AJ Abrams and Damion James make the early Naismith Award watch list...Garrett Gilbert led Lake Travis to an undefeated season and second straight state title...PB is undoubtedly crushed that his man-crush, Robert Griffin, was beat out by Boise State's Kellen Moore for first team Freshman All-America...Kirk Bohls has two Longhorn football reminiscences in his Top 10 memories from Texas Stadium.