Game Recap: In each of the first four games of the season, Texas followed a clear pattern. The Horns would get an early lead, lose it before the end of the half, then methodically overwhelm their opponents over the final twenty minutes. Today, the script got flipped, as the Longhorns struggled early and got outplayed during several parts of the second half. Despite the big win, in watching the game, the victory raised more questions about this team than it answered. During portions of the second half, Texas showed some flaws that future opponents will definitely try to exploit before they were able to pull away in the final minutes.
Unlike previous games, Texas started slowly and shot poorly from the field. At the second TV timeout, Texas was only up 10-6 and looked sloppy on offense. Things didnt immediately get any better. Out of the break, Texas remained ice cold from the field and made some careless turnovers. Continuing another disturbing trend, the Longhorns missed their first 7 three-pointers. I'd be fascinated to see the full Gameflow analysis from the first 13 minutes, as the Longhorns once again unveiled the lineup including Balbay and Mason at the same time. As you might expect, this lineup didnt work very well on the offensive end.
After the slow start, Texas eventually turned on the jets and showed why this team can be so beautiful to watch. Starting with a powerful alley-oop slam by Avery Bradley with 5:47 left, Texas went on a 15-6 run over a 3:30 span to go up 33-18. During the run, Hamilton nailed back-to-back threes and five different players scored for Texas. It was an impressive run, and a reminder of what this team can do when clicking on all cylinders. Unfortunately, right after this run, Texas failed to finish the half strong and let Rice close to within 33-23. Incredibly, Rice scored 18 of their 23 first half points on either dunks or lay-ups and didnt score a single point from outside the paint. Several defensive lapses by Texas led to easy baskets, and it's scary to think about how dominant this defense can be once they become more comfortable with their roles and responsibilities.
In the second half, Texas immediately started pumping the ball inside to Sexy Dex to great success. Dexter scored seven quick points in the first three minutes of the half and additionally made a beautiful assist to Avery Bradley when the inevitable swarm of defenders came his way. Similar to the first half run, Texas scored eleven points in under 3:00 and looked unstoppable on the offensive end. Texas looked well on their way to running Rice out of the gym, but Rice's switch to a zone defense showed the warts that all the Texas nay-sayers have been pointing out. After this initial scoring burst, Texas shot poorly, failed to keep getting the ball inside, couldnt shoot free throws to save their life, and made some egregious decisions on the offensive end. Additionally, the team made some facepalm level turnovers that will lead to several expletives being uttered when the team watches the film from this game. From the 17:00 mark until the 6:00 mark, Texas made a total of three baskets from the field and only one from inside the arc. Outside of Jordan Hamilton's 3-6 shooting, Texas went 1-11 from behind the arc.
Despite the lopsided final score, Texas was in a dogfight until the final minutes. With 7:00 to go, Texas was only up 61-54 and appeared to be on their heels. Fortunately, the defense stepped up, and J'Covan Brown poured in eight points in the final minutes to put the game out of reach. Texas held Rice without a field goal over the last 6:21, only allowing three free throws. The disjointed nature of this game saw Texas still struggling to put everything together at the same time.
The outcome was: Fascinatingly Frustrating. The team should be expected to struggle, but it's the nature of today's struggles that give credence to the idea that Texas is overrated. The sloppy basketball, poor decisions, and poor free throw shooting show exactly how far they need to come over the next few weeks. It's not that they *cant* or *wont* get there (because they will), but it's just a reminder that this team is currently operating at a level below the sum of its parts. Rice gave teams a blueprint for how to slow down the Longhorns, and the team better be prepared to "win ugly" over the next few weeks. All that said, watching this team operate--when things are clicking--is a thing of beauty.
Stat of the game: 33 fouls for Rice. As part of their strategy against Texas, Rice was not afraid to commit a slew of fouls. In fact, of their ten players who got into the game, seven of them had at least four fouls. While the whistles were a little tight, the strategy helped slow down the game and forced Texas to make their shots at the free throw line. Even though Texas shot 67.4% from the line, that number is inflated by the Longhorns hitting their last seven shots from the line. Before that string of makes, Texas was barely over 60% from the game. I wouldnt be surprised to see several other teams force Texas to beat them from the foul line.
The Offensive MVP was: Dexter Pittman. Dexter scored 21 points tonight on 7-8 shooting. Additionally, Dex grabbed 5 offensive rebounds and remains an absolute force in the paint. Dexter had too many turnovers, but he also made some really nice passes, especially the deft one to Bradley that led to a lay-up. While the blowouts have allowed Barnes to limit Dex's minutes, he played a season-high 26 minutes tonight. The team made a point to go to Dexter to start the second half, and, when they can find him in the post, good things generally happen.
The Defensive MVP was: Our perimeter defense. As mentioned earlier, Rice did not score a single point from outside the paint during the first half. The Texas guards were all over the court tonight, and, while the team only had 6 steals, they made several deflections and harrassed their Rice counterparts during the entire game. Rice shot 1-10 from behind the arc, and I would love to see their shooting percentage minus all their dunks and layups. Rice's starting guards shot 4-23 from the field, including an 0-10 effort from Connor Frizelle. Balbay and Bradley are simply going to terrorize opponents during the entire season.
J'Covan Brown Update: Brown played a pretty interesting game tonight. He's got to cut down the silly turnovers--another five tonight--but he also demonstrated the playmaking ability that we heard about during the entire off-season. His alley-oop to Bradley was perfect, and he had a pretty sweet line of 15-5-4, in addition to nailing all of his free throws. Despite the turnovers, Barnes let him play 31 minutes tonight, which led the team. In March, we might have to ride or die with J'Covan, so it's nice to see him get some crunch-time minutes tonight.
Additionally, he got fouled HARD during a breakaway by a Rice defender and jumped up looking like he was ready to rumble. Before he could do anything, he was thrown into a bearhug by Damion James and cooled off. For everyone concerned about J'Covan losing his head, he seemingly passed the first test. He did get upset after a foul call, but, as of now, his emotions are still in check.
Finally, J'Covan Brown wearing #50 to honor Varez Ward is kinda bizarre. It's not like Varez died, and I didnt see Dan Buckner changing his number to honor the memory of DJ Grant.
Conclusion: This game--largely forgettable by itself--will be remembered for what it means for this team moving forward. Texas showed some warts today, and it's a near-certainty that other teams will try to emulate some of the looks and strategies that worked against us. This team remains supremely talented, but we're going to have to wait another game to see if Texas can put it all together.