After an ugly first half in which the Longhorns very much looked like a team that hadn't played in 10 days, Texas came alive in the final 20 minutes, outscoring Appalachian State 46-20 en route to a comfortable 73-48 win at the Drum -- the 35-point final margin their largest of the season. Eight Longhorns logged double-digit minutes, with two others (Atchley - 8, Smith - 7) not far behind, as Rick Barnes used a swarm of players and lineups to overwhelm the much smaller and less talented Mountaineers.
Given the wide range of contributions up and down the roster tonight, as well as the holiday break from the Texas Basketball Report, what follows is a TBR player-by-player review, starting with performances tonight but working outward, with particular emphasis on roles heading forward.
TEXAS BASKETBALL NON-CONFERENCE PLAYER REVIEW
Damion James 19 minutes, 14 points, 13 rebounds, 4-7 FGs, 0-1 3PFGs 6-7 FTs
ESPNU's broadcast team of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum spent half their telecast expressing disappointment that Damion wasn't dominating this game like Michael Jordan in a Fort Lauderdale church league, a silly meme given both the context and DaMo's final stat line in less than a half of play. That said... their ramblings did help me connect a few dots as relates to Texas' talented but at times enigmatic junior. I think a lot of us expected -- certainly hoped -- that James would be for this year's Texas team a special, near-superstar type player. Not only did he take an enormous leap forward between his freshman and sophomore seasons, but Texas basketball fans (myself included) have gotten used to the idea that one or more player on the roster is capable of performing at a level that leads to their name being called early in the NBA Draft. If you need a refresher, take a look:
|2004-05||D Gibson, L Aldridge|
|2005-06||D Gibson, L Aldridge|
|2006-07||K Durant, DJ Augustin|
Since TJ Ford's arrival, Rick Barnes has in all but one season had on his squad one or more standout offensive stars. (During their time in Austin, neither Gibson nor Aldridge quite actualized their full talents other than in spurts, but they were both at times go-to, I'm-taking-over studs.) Now, in 2008-09, though Damion James has seemed the logical successor for that role, as we close the non-con season I'm beginning to understand better (with the aid of this superb article) that James simply isn't a front-and-center guy -- either on or off the court. In terms of athleticism, skill, and importance to the team beating elites in March, he most definitely is a big-time star, but in terms of role, I'm starting to accept why he hasn't been and probably won't be the Main Guy player many of us keep hoping to see.
I'd argue that's not necessarily a bad thing, as Damion at his best in the supporting stud role still provides a ton of value while the weaknesses in his still-developing game are near-completely mitigated. In truth, DaMo as the focal point in our offense would produce -- same as Abrams -- some ugly, uncomfortable moments and games. (Notre Dame, anyone?) The key, then, is for James to be ultra-aggressive as a rebounder, as an opportunistic slasher, as a go-to creator when a clean shot is a must, and as the Best Athlete On The Floor.
CONNOR ATCHLEY 8 minutes, 3 points, 1 rebound, 1-2 3PFGs, 1 BLK, 1 STL
Atchley was gushing blood after getting whacked in the face under the rim during the first half and wasn't able to return. But prior to his departure I did see a few good signs from the struggling senior. He hit an open floor three pointer created by Balbay in transition and -- in direct contrast to what we heard from Tweedle Dum -- looked squared to the rim and vertically balanced on his second long-range attempt, a corner shot that missed an inch short.
Though even his own mother would admit that the season has been a deep struggle so far, I'm 100% convinced that the root of the problem is systemic, rather than some deterioration in ability/skill/whatever in Connor himself. The offensive identities of this year's team and last year's Augustin-led squad are as different as Thayer Evans and a respectable piece of journalism. (Sorry.) As relates specifically to Atchley, the two offensive identities are enormously different in the opportunities they provide for an athletic, 6-10 forward who can pop it.
I'll perhaps go into this further in a post of its own, but for now I only urge Texas fans to be patient and let things continue to develop. Not only is Atchley still an uncannily great shot blocker and the team's ultimate ceiling notably higher with him playing good basketball, but -- like Justin Mason during this same stretch last year -- I suspect a lot of Connor's problems are right now in his head. Not only do I expect him to conquer those at some point (hopefully soon), but I'm particularly hopeful that the emergence of Dogus Balbay as a field general will help spring Connor back into the productive role we're used to seeing.
DEXTER PITTMAN 26 minutes, 21 points, 11 rebounds, 8-12 FGs, 5-6 FTs, 4 TOs, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 2 Fouls
A career night for Sexy Dexy in points rebounds and minutes, but among all the impressive numbers, the most important stats in my mind are the 26 minutes played and 2 personal fouls. Certainly, the 21 points and 11 boards were great (not to mention the excellent foul shooting), but the Mountaineers were a vastly undersized squad with no one anywhere near the size needed to deal with Big Dex. Still, Appalachian State's undersized roster cuts both ways: Their guard-centric squad played high tempo basketball, yet Dexter ran the floor well and logged his career high in minutes played. Meanwhile, his only picking up two personal fouls speaks to his ever-improving body control, even when dealing with players dwarfed by his massive body. Not thrashing smaller players has heretofore been an omnipresent obstacle to staying on the floor for significant minutes.
Slowly but surely Dexter is becoming a beast few college teams can adequately deal with one-on-one (or at all, in the case of undersized squads). He's got a ways to go yet and has a shockingly high amount of room to develop above even this elevated level, but his junior year improvement is proving to be both real and consistent. If he can be a 25 minute per game player with body/foul control and continued improvement on defense he might find himself on the all-conference team and -- more importantly -- make Texas a uniquely t ough match up in the NCAAs.
AJ ABRAMS 28 minutes, 9 points, 0 rebounds, 3-9 FGs, 3-7 3PFGs, 1 AST, 1 TO
Give the little man credit: He's both stepped up as a non-con hero and done well in adjusting to a more team-fluid role in the offense -- both of which have been instrumental in Texas' strong record as it heads into 2009. On Friday night he took a few ill-advised shots, but spent the majority of his time blending in. His willingness and ability to do that are pivotal as a starting point, with his sharpshooting scoring bursts available if the team needs to gun it. Playing within both himself and the various roles in the offense Barnes asks him to play, Abrams is a tremendous asset.
JUSTIN MASON 25 minutes, 4 points, 2 rebounds, 4 AST, 2 TOs, 4 STLs
Let's appreciate visually what Justin Mason has done in Texas' last seven games:
Astounding, and while much of my attention of late has been focused on analyzing the much-needed development of guard depth via Balbay and Ward, Justin Mason's quiet excellence has been the story of the 2008-09 season thus far. Both by his own play and by allowing AJ Abrams to maximize his value as an off-ball guard, Mason is your non-conference MVP.
GARY JOHNSON 29 minutes, 16 points, 9 rebounds, 6-11 FGs, 4-6 FTs, 5 BLKS
At 6-6, Johnson is a smidge undersized to be dominant, but his body strength, aggressiveness, skill, and instincts are all of high enough caliber that he can and will be a consistent 15 and 10 guy sooner rather than later. I'm undecided on what his ultimate upside is, but that's unimportant for now: Texas fans should enjoy watching him grow into his skin. He's only just now beginning to maximize his strengths as a player. The next step is efficiency; as it comes, his value to the team will continue to skyrocket.
DOGUS BALBAY 24 minutes, 5 points, 1 rebound, 3 AST, 1 TO, 1 BLK, 2 STL, 0-4 FTs
One of the great things about this season is that the developments just keep coming. Even better, we're just getting started. From Pittman to Johnson to Balbay, the room to grow is evident, giving me far more hope for this team making a tourney run than I initially thought.
A lot of things have to happen for Texas to get to that level, but what we've seen of late from Balbay is as critical to those hopes as anything else. The Justin Mason chart above speaks for itself, but as a pure point Balbay is a better passer and, more importantly, opens up the floor a little differently; his quickness with the ball in his hands give him the ability to disrupt defenses, which offenses without NBA players require to consistently succeed. And at the most base level, Balbay's emergence adds guard depth we weren't sure we had a month ago. If there's a concern, it's that his awful shooting creates an opportunity for opponents to zone, but that's a strategy both Abrams and Atchley would benefit from.
Watch Balbay's progress closely: I think he's the key to protecting Texas' glaring weakness in the half court.
MATT HILL 12 minutes, 5 points, 1 rebound
It's great to see him healthy and contributing, but he's not flashing much upside yet. I'll withhold further judgment until we see a bit more, as Rick's only recently begun using Hill with any regularity.
VAREZ WARD 21 minutes, 6 points, 1 rebound, 2-8 FGs, 0-1 3PFGs, 2-4 FTs, 4 AST, 2 TOs
Though I've previously compared Ward favorably to the freshman version of Justin Mason, I had another thought watching him tonight: Craigory! Long time BONizens will get the reference to Craig Winder, who made a surprise surge of contributions to Texas during the last month of the 2006-07 season, playing much in the way that Varez Ward does -- high energy, active defense, and raw offense, but with a knack for making plays.
The comparison's not ideal for many reasons -- Ward offers more as a true freshman than Winder did even during his senior year spurt -- but in terms of what and how they add value to the team, the parallels are there. Like Craigory, Ward provides a spark off the bench with an abundance of quickness and energy that, while not always pretty, winds up creating good things for the Longhorns more often than you expect.
CLINT CHAPMAN 1 minute, 0 points, 0 rebounds, 2 fouls
Is he hurt? Or in the doghouse? I'm not sure what to make of Chappy going forward this year. He has his moments on offense (thanks to good hands and a robust, natural hoops skill set), but his feet are so slow on defense that I can barely stand to watch. If he's not hurt, I wouldn't be surprised if his drastic reduction in minutes is tied to his substandard defense.
HARRISON SMITH 7 minutes, 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal, 0-4 FGs, 0-3 3PFGs, 2 AST, 0 TOs
The last man off the bench, Smith is an average defender with a poor shot and trigger finger. I'm always glad to see the last guys on the bench get in the game, but I wouldn't expect any surprise spurt from Mr. Smith.