Along with James and Pittman, Varez Ward, Justin Mason, and freshman J'Covan Brown completed the starting lineup. Brown started slowly and sloppily at the point guard spot, and Coach Barnes was forced to sit him down after two early turnovers and again after a couple of more. After the game, Rick said this about his freshman point guard, "J'Covan wore us all out before the games. I've never seen a guy as amped up. Ever."
As will be a theme this season, the depth of this team allowed the ‘Horns to quickly find their stride. Dogus Balbay was inserted for Brown and helped the Longhorns turn a 19-18 deficit after the first ten minutes of action into a 42-21 halftime lead.
Balbay played solid on-the-ball defense and helped protect the ball in the halfcourt where James and Pittman could dominate. Both big men finished with 21 points a piece. Most of Dexter's 10-of-11 from the floor came off dunks or lay ins. James had a few buckets of length but most of his scoring came around the basket as well. The smaller Anteaters were simply overmatched in height, strength, and athleticism.
During the back and forth start, I thought Texas struggled to communicate on defense. There was some confusion on how to defend ball screens. Some players were also over running their pursuit on the pass and over committing on shot fakes. The substitution patters of three, four, or even five players at a time help explain the early defensive lapses. However, after that back and forth start, the Longhorn defense played more consistently and more together. Texas contested shots better, didn't allow second chance points or almost anything in the paint, and, for the most part, controlled dribble penetration.
The outcome was: Exciting. Exciting because this was the first game; exciting because I finally got to see the four freshman live and in a college game; and exciting because the potential of this team is clear.
Unlike last year, this year's Longhorns will not have trouble scoring from the perimeter. Jordan Hamilton and Brown can both shoot the ball from deep. They both have good form, which should help produce consistent buckets, and good size, which will allow them to easily shoot over zones.
Unlike last year, foul trouble, even if it's Dex, won't be an issue. The ‘Horns are deeper than any team in the country and can run as many as 14 different players on the court for double digits in minutes every game.
Unlike last year, Barnes does not have to play smaller, three guard lineups. While Texas did start three guards, that was by choice not out of necessity. Hamilton (6-7) and Williams (6-6) will give Texas excellent size from the wing, and I won't be surprised to see James (6-7) play some at the three too when Rick wants to play with an even bigger lineup. Texas has real size at the two guard spots also. Avery Bradley, listed at 6-2, and Brown, listed at 6-1, both played bigger and stronger than their listed heights. The days of playing two sub six foot guards plus Mason at the wing are thankfully over.
The biggest thing I took away from the ‘Horns first game was potential. Right now, they are so much less than the sum of their parts. And right now, they're pretty good. The parts are all there-talent, size, depth, and experience. There is no reason why Barnes shouldn't be able to mold this team into more than the sum of their individually talented parts and national championship favorites by tourney time.
Stats of the Game: 49-30 Texas on the glass. 54-18 Texas points in the paint. If you didn't get a chance to see the game, that is about all you need to know. As expected, Texas was able to dominate the smaller Anteaters in the paint on both ends.
The Offensive MVP was: Damion James. DaMo started his senior campaign in style-21 points (7-of-9 from the floor, 2-of-2 from three, 5-of-6 from the line), 15 boards, two assists, and a steal in just 22 minutes of action. James came back to Texas for a lot of reasons, but the big one was to play himself into a NBA first round selection. So far, so good. He looked confident, in control, and hungry. If he can produce the same smart and solid performances against the Michigan States and North Carolinas of the world, the NBA will be forced to take a second look at DaMo.
The Defensive MVP was: Texas in the second half. I don't have the exact stats but UC Irvine was something like 9-of-18 to start the game. They finished 17-of-62 for just 27% from the floor. Needless to say, the defense was the key to the 47 point victory.
I want to note a few more things, player by player:
Damion James: After the games, DaMo noted that the younger players looked up to him and that he has tried to take them under his wing. He also said that while the freshmen are very talented, that they still have a lot to learn. I can imagine the exact same thing coming out of Rick Barnes' mouth.
During the off season, we've noted that team chemistry is something of a concern and definitely something to watch. While James has not been a loud and vocal leader in his first three seasons, it sounds like he recognizes that now it's his turn. This veteran to freshman leadership, along with the development of a point guard, whoever it ends up being, are the two biggest keys to a Final Four run, in my opinion.
Dexter Pittman: More important than throwing down one-handed slams over guys standing just 6-6, Dex only picked up one foul. The more Pittman can stay on the floor, the better this team can be offensively. I was also impressed with the one post move when he turned over his right shoulder for an easy lay in. In previous seasons, he has almost always turned over his left shoulder to produce the easier right handed jump hook. If he has added the ability to go the other way with his back to the basket, look out.
Avery Bradley: Bradley is going to be so much better than his stats. Texas will be a Dexter and Damion focused team first. Second, it looks like J'Covan and Hamilton won't be afraid to let it fly. Therefore, Bradley would easily be the fifth scoring option among these five and probably still no better than third or fourth with some others on the floor. He will definitely get his-in transition, off dribble drives, and in second chance opportunities-but given the offensive skills of some other ‘Horns, Bradley won't be a 20 point scorer. It doesn't matter though. He is too good. His two late-game mid-range jumpers were things of beauty-in balance, form, and arc. The defense is also already there. Last, from Barnes' comments during the off season, this is a kid who knows he can get better and his ready to work on his weaknesses.
Varez Ward: If Barnes wants his point guard to pass the ball and play lock down defense, then Ward may be the man. Varez has the size, athleticism, and vision to be a true pass-first, shoot second floor general.
J'Covan Brown: J'Covan is raw, talented, and emotional. Unfortunately for him, he was too hyped for this game and it showed during the first half. Fortunately for us, it was his first game in over a year, after sitting out all of last season, and his upside is huge. If Barnes wants his point guard to score and stretch the defense with his perimeter jumper, then Brown is his man. From everything I saw though, J'Covan is more of a shoot-first, pass-second point.
Dogus Balbay: Dogus is third head of the ‘Horns point guard machine (with a fourth, Jai Lucas coming in December). Balbay played really well this afternoon. Six assists to no turnovers in 19 minutes from your point guard is every coach's dream. That said, I am not as big a fan of Dogus as are many of you. His offensive limitations make me hope that Barnes uses Balbay as more of spark off the bench than 25+ minute contributor.
Justin Mason: Mase has started for the better part of his three seasons at Texas and removing him from the starting lineup won't be easy. He still can do the little things-rebound, play solid d, and push the basketball in transition. However, I can't see how he ends up averaging more than 15 minutes per game once the freshmen become more comfortable.
Jordan Hamilton: Does Jordan have a nickname? He needs one. Hamilton looked smooth, long, and ready to score. Jordan may not have the defensive mindset that Barnes would like yet, but you can already see how important he'll be to the ‘Horns success.
Shawn Williams: I guess Shawn won't be redshirting this year. Williams played a productive (6 boards), yet sloppy 13 minutes against UC Irvine. His size will give Texas a much needed third rebounder and his ability shoot the three ball should open up driving lanes on the other end.
Alexis Wangmene: Wingman, I've missed you. With scorers at nearly every position, Lexi is the perfect bruising big man to bring off the bench. He showed strong hands and a willingness to fight for boards in his eight minutes of action. I expect his playing time to directly correlate to Dexter's foul trouble and stamina.
Gary Johnson: Like Dogus, I am not as in love with Gary as most Longhorn hoops' fans but recognize that he can be important role player on this team. GJ is always going to bring the energy. I just wish he was two inches taller and had a higher basketball IQ. Hopefully, Gary realizes that he is going to be the third, fourth, or even fifth scoring option during most of his minutes this season. Rebound, pass the ball from the post, and make your free throws and I'll love ya. I promise.
Matt Hill: Hill is a big body with limited athleticism. Gary and Wingman will likely be the first two off the bench as bigs, so I can't see Matt getting much playing time.
Clint Chapman: Clint wasn't in uniform. I couldn't see him from my seat either. I have no idea. Anyone?
NEXT GAME: Home vs. Western Carolina - Wednesday 11/18 8 pm ESPNU