After horrendous team performances against Arkansas and Oklahoma sandwiching a listless performance opening the Big 12 season at home against a poor Iowa State squad, Rick Barnes promised changes and delivered, as the Longhorns played an outstanding second half against Texas Tech, turning a competitive game into a blowout.
Benching Dexter Pittman in favor of Gary Johnson and playing Dogus Balbay significant minutes at the point, along with AJ Abrams, Rick Barnes sought to relieve pressure on Justin Mason by returning him to his more comfortable position off the ball, giving him the ability to crash the offensive glass without worrying about giving up easy transition baskets. Mason responded, scoring 15 points on 5-8 shooting, converting four of five free throws, while pulling down 10 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end. While Mason had only one assist in the game, his first game failing to record two or more assists this season, his movement off the ball helped the other aspects of his game.
Rick Barnes took personal responsibility for the recent sub-par play of Mason, saying:
I took Justin Mason away. I kept trying to put him in a position where he wasn't comfortable and he got confused.
It's gut-wrenching. It kills you. He got confused. Should I shoot? Not shoot? We had to let Justin be who and what he is.
Great decision on the part of Rick Barnes, but ultimately the responsibility to perform on the court falls on the player, with Mason adding,
Today I just let it go and played like I'm used to playing. It helped a lot.
The results speak for themselves...
First field goal attempt (11:29 first half) - Coming out of the 12-minute television timeout, the Longhorns inbounded the ball underneath their basket. A poor offensive possession, Texas failed to get the ball into the lane at all, with Varez Ward and Dogus Balbay spending most of the possession pounding the rock on the perimeter. Finally, with five seconds left on the shot clock, Matt Hill found Mason on the left wing, where he attempted to pump fake the defender for several seconds, finally taking one dribble right and launching a contested jump shot from just inside the old three-point line. Predictably, the shot was a brick, hitting above the square on the glass and barely grazing the rim on the way down.
Commentary - Of the three guards in the game at that game, neither Ward, Balbay, nor Mason should have the ball in their hands away from the basket with five seconds or fewer on the shot clock. In other words, it's a disastrous combination and one that should not see the court again together for the rest of the season. Recognizing this, Rick Barnes inserted Abrams into the game at the next dead ball, sitting Balbay.
First point (9:00 first half) - Matt Hill rebounded his own miss to provide the Longhorns with an extra possession, screening for AJ Abrams, who took over ballhandling duties after entering the game for Dogus Balbay several minutes earlier. Abrams took a three coming off the screen and Mason, allowed to crash the boards from his position off the ball, secured the offensive rebound, though it looked like he might have pushed off to do so, as the Texas Tech defender hit the floor in front of Mason. Fouled on his subsequent attempt, Mason headed to the free throw line, where he struggled against Iowa State, making only one of eight attempts on that day. The first free throw looked pretty good, but was too strong, hitting the back of the rim. On the following attempt, Mason recalibrated and made his second attempt.
Commentary - Mason probably got away with a push on this play, but at least did so without extending his forearm, a movement that will almost always result in a foul call. Had Mason been handling the ball, he would have been in position to crash the glass and would have needed to stay back to help in transition defense. Playing two other guards alongside Mason allow him to attack without worrying about his defensive responsibilities, though the combination of Mason, Balbay, and Ward is a poor one, meaning it needs to be Abrams back there if Barnes wants to play with three guards.
First made field goal (5:44 first half) - After Gary Johnson secured a weakside defensive rebound, an outlet pass to Dogus Balbay started the fastbreak. Balbay found Abrams running the left wing, where he took a dribble and stepped into a three-pointer that he left short and on the front of the rim. No one blocked out Mason, who ran to the rim, missing his first put back long, but using the glass on the second and finishing over a Tech defender earlier caught on the wrong side of the rim.
Commentary - Free to run the court in transition without having to wait for the outlet pass, Mason playing off the ball allowed him to run to the rim and secure the offensive rebounds, and, eventually, the lay up.
Second made field goal (17:52 second half) - Tech's John Roberson made a three-pointer out of a Tech timeout and AJ Abrams brought the ball up the court on the subsequent Texas offensive possession, executing a dribble hand off with Damion James before running the baseline and eventually handling the ball again out at the top of the key. After a pass to Damion James on the left wing and a cursory look at making an entry pass to Gary Johnson, James reversed the ball out top to Connor Atchley, who found Mason cutting towards the basket from the right wing going to his left against Alan Voskuil. Mason finished nicely with a left-handed finger roll near the basket.
Commentary - Nice pass by Connor Atchley, who does a good job of moving the ball and facilitating the offense from the perimeter, making several nice passes to cutting teammates for assists on the day. Even when Atchley doesn't score, he can still affect the game by doing little things like finding open teammates for easy baskets.
Second and third made free throws (15:45 second half) - A Connor Atchley missed three and poor transition defense lead to an easy lay up for Texas Tech. Quickly inbounding the ball, Abrams brought it up the left wing, dribbling left and coming back right to the top of the key and finding Mason on the right wing, who passed to Damion James in the right corner. James looked to Gary Johnson on the right block, then found Mason cutting to the basket after slipping a double screen for Abrams. Mason was fouled on the play, giving him two shots after the 16-minute television break. Mason left the first free throw just a little bit short and on the left part of the rim, but it nestled in anyway, before draining the second.
Commentary - The play was made by the shooting acumen of Abrams, as Mason's defender was too concerned with keeping Abrams from getting an open look to keep Mason out of the lane. Nice find by Damion James, who is still adjusting to his role on the perimeter and isn't a guy asked to find cutting players very often.
Third made field goal and fourth made free throw (12:52 second half) - A good box out and rebound in traffic by Mason secured the ball for the Longhorns and Mason navigated some more traffic into the open court, advancing the ball to the top of the key and receiving a solid screen from Matt Hill, giving an ever-so-slight hesitation move to get John Roberson off balance, then exploding to the basket and finishing with strength at the basket, absorbing contact from the rotating Tech big and drawing the foul. Mason left the free throw well short on the front of the rim, but across the fulcrum point of the basketball and settling into the basket on the bounce.
Commentary - When Mason plays with confidence, he shows of a great hesitation move and explosiveness to the basket, where he finishes well. It's likely that Mason loses aggressiveness when he lacks confidence in his free-throw shooting, leading him to avoid any excursions to the basket that could result in a trip to the line.
First made three pointer (12:30) - Connor Atchley cleaned up a lay up attempt by Nick Okorie after a nice cut and pass from John Roberson, leading to a Justin Mason rebound and transition opportunity. In keeping with his role off the ball, Mason passed ahead to Dogus Balbay at center court, then filled the lane on the right wing. Balbay penetrated to just inside the three-point line on that right wing and with the sense of a good point guard, found Mason in rhythm stepping into a three pointer several feet away. Confident from his three point play only 20 seconds before, Mason released the shot without hesitation, finding nothing but the bottom of the net (his first made three-pointer since the game against Michigan State) and completing a personal six-point run.
Commentary - Mason often fails to "put his hand in the cookie jar," not breaking his wrist on his follow through, perhaps the greatest mechanical flaw in his shooting stroke. On this play, however, Mason followed through with the wrist pronation of an accomplished shooter, reaping the results of an accomplished shooter. Great job by Balbay to find the hot scorer in rhythm and further increase his confidence by giving Mason an easy look. This play demonstrates how important it is for Mason to shoot with confidence. While not a pure shooter by any stretch of the imagination, his respectable three-point percentages during his freshman and sophomore seasons (39.8% and 34.2%, respectively) indicate that he is capable of making shots, but must be confident and shoot in rhythm and without hesitation to do so. Any made three-point baskets by Mason make the Longhorns a much more dangerous team.
Within the context of the game, Mason's conventional and unconventional three-point plays and personal 6-0 run stretched a 12-point lead to 18 and effectively ended any chances of a Red Raider comeback.
Fifth made field goal (7:27 second half) - Once again, the Longhorns pushed the basketball after a made field goal by Texas Tech, clearly a point of emphasis by Rick Barnes. Intelligently, Damion James surveyed his options on the left wing and seeing no advantage reset the offense with Abrams handling the point-guard duties. Finding James again on the perimeter, James this time attacked quickly on the baseline, finding Mason opportunistically filling open space near the basket and finishing easily at the rim.
Commentary - James has struggled knowing when to be aggressive off the bounce from the perimeter but made three good decisions on this possession, first reseting the offense early after the initial push, then attacking off the dribble when he saw the opening, and finally, showing the court awareness to find Mason for the easy basket. The Longhorns need James to make plays off the dribble.
A hallmark of Rick Barnes teams is a mid-season slump, followed by adjustments and momentum gained during the middle of the conference season, culminating the team often peaking at or near the start of NCAA tournament play. The ability to make adjustments not only reflects on the flexibility and capability of Barnes to reverse course when necessary, but also on the long-term strategic planning Barnes uses. As a Bulls fans and admirer of Phil Jackson, who was always willing to lose a game to prove a point to his players and plan for the long term, I have a great deal of respect for that quality in a coach. Rick Barnes is equally willing to lose a game to prove a point, as I believe Fran Fraschilla remarked during the Oklahoma game last week.
(As a quick aside, Fraschilla may be the best color commentator currently doing college basketball and Big 12 fans are lucky to have him call conference games for the World Wide Leader.)
Back to the topic at hand -- Barnes made tough adjustments this week, benching Dexter Pittman and putting Abrams and Balbay on the ball. Another point of emphasis over the last couple weeks, pushing the ball up the court to put pressure on defenses before they get set, has also helped establish a quicker tempo for the Longhorns. But taking Pittman out of the game opens up driving and cutting lanes to the basket for other players, while taking Mason off the ball always him to concentrate on defense and hustle plays, like offensive rebounding.
Long term, Mason will probably get some opportunities to run the team, as he did last season when DJ Augustin took his rare breaks, but look for Balbay and Abrams to continue with the bulk of the point guard duties, particularly Abrams, since setting high screens for Abrams allows him opportunities to get good looks from deep.
The keys for Mason are twofold, but related. In each of the last two seasons, Mason reached a point where he was struggling mightily with his confidence, which reduced his aggressiveness. That low point this season came again Oklahoma, a game in which he did not attempt a field goal or free throw. On a team lacking a true playmaker (here defined as someone who can create shots for himself or others), Mason is perhaps the closest the team has, possessing the ability to get to the rim and finish, while also showing the vision necessary to find open teammates after breaking down the defense -- the new-look offense will create those opportunities for him by leaving cutting and driving lanes open for him.
With reduced ball handling responsibilities and a renewed commitment to crashing the offensive glass puts Mason in a better position to take advantage of his skill set. After dropping between 10 and 15 pounds after his freshman season, his increased explosiveness made him a better penetrator to the basket, which is a skill Mason must continue to use, even when off the ball. Altogether, the decisions by Rick Barnes made between the Oklahoma and Texas Tech games paid immediate dividends. Where Dexter Pittman fits into the plans for the rest of the season remains to be seen, but if the Tech game proves anything, it's that Rick Barnes is willing to make tough decisions about his basketball team.