These three years of law school in the middle of nowhere have made for tough November-Decembers for my Texas basketball fandom. Each year, the same story: enter the school year with a grand plan to keep up with school as the semester progresses, only to spend the entirety of September, October, and November feeding my addiction to college football, such that the week after Thanksgiving I have no choice but to retreat from sports to allow for a full sprint to the semester's finish.
And this year, the Texas Basketball Report makes its latest debut so far, after a full 9 games are in the books. Perhaps no big deal, what with the season getting serious just now, but even this seemingly terrific bit of timing (I completed my last exam 24 hours before today's tip) is warted--my flight home necessitating I get in a cab at 3:30 CT, right as the second half of the game starts heating up. And if you've ever had the displeasure of flying through the South Bend "airport," you know there won't be any catching the tail end on either of the two TV's in the entire building, both of which will be tuned to Fox News.
In any case, the late debut of the TBR is just a symptom of the underlying problem, which is that I love Texas basketball nearly as much, if not equal to, Texas football. You have to understand that my earliest memory as a human being is as a toddler at the Drum; my Pops took his two sons to every home game, every year, even when that meant having to listen to Tom Penders post-game excuses after a loss to Stephen F. Austin. (Seriously. My brother and I still crack jokes about it to this day, adding as a caveat to any personal failure, "Well, you know, the Lumberjacks are gonna be there in March.") In all, I'm sure I attended roughly 15 games every year, from age 5 through 22 (excepting two years when I wasn't living in Austin). I love this stuff. A lot.
So while I'm sure I'll be frustrated this afternoon when I miss the tail end of the game, it won't snuff out the excitement and relief I feel to be thinking and talking about Texas hoops. Best of all, next December I'll be able to join Wiggo among the 5,000 who turn out for a stomping of UT-Pan Am.
The season's first TBR begins after the jump, an abbreviated version serving mostly as a UNC preview, for obvious reasons.
Before the first test. Having caught Pitt, Iowa, and Southern Cal in down years, it's been a particularly manageable opening stretch for the Horns, who through 9 games have faced just three Top 100 opponents (Pitt, Long Beach State, and Western Carolina, who are now 10-1 after beating Louisville last week). While what Texas does in the next three days is more important, the opening run of blowouts isn't to be disregarded as meaningless. It matters much less whether Texas' first 9 manageable games come in succession to open the year or (as in every other Rick Barnes year) sometime after the 11th game, and more how the team disposes of those beatable squads.
The fact is that Texas is walloping lesser teams like no Rick Barnes team ever has, with the possible exception of the Gibson-Aldridge-Tucker 2005-06 squad. There's a reason that when Texas takes the hardwood this afternoon, it will be for their 34th consecutive day atop Ken Pomeroy's Ratings. To put that in perspective, consider, first of all, that--as far as I know, and I've been a religious devotee of KP's work since its inception--Texas has never been the #1-rated team. And second, though the manageable schedule has helped Texas maintain astronomical ratings, consider that they've thus far managed to outperform Kansas, whose own schedule has been even softer than Texas's.
All of which is to say that regardless of what happens in the next two games, the manner by which Texas is throttling lesser teams tells us important things, as well. Hopefully they'll do better with their December tests than did the 2005-06 squad (Black Saturday in East Rutheford and the disastrous loss in Austin a week later, to Chris Lofton and Tennesse).
Okay, so yeah: now it's on. Nice as it is to see Texas killing the weak, it's still anyone's guess how this group will perform against a team that can match them in size, depth, and athleticism. And whereas UNC will represent the first test of Texas's season, today's contest will be the Tar Heels' fourth against Top 50 competition. Both teams are young, but at this point in the season, Texas is decidedly greener.
Of most concern will be the team's performance in the half court offense, which has yet to face resistance as meaningful as it will today. If Texas is settling for long, contested jump shots early and often, we'll have a good idea about the answer to the question of whether the team still has a steep learning curve in front of it.
Battle of the bigs. Last week when I was sending over questions to Carolina March, I made a sloppy error and wound up asking him a question about whether UNC would struggle at all to bang with Texas physically. The Tar Heels are, of course, as physically imposing a squad as there is in the country, with a small army of Ents to patrol the paint, including five players 6-10 or taller. None may be quite as Sexy as Pittman (who is?), but he's flying solo into this battle, creating what could very well be a potentially determinative factor in the game: The easiest Texas win to envision involves 25-30 minutes of Sexy basketball, while the easiest loss to picture foresees long stretches on the bench with foul trouble. (I certainly agree it's as critical a factor as there is in this game, but as I'll discuss in a bit, I'm at least as interested in whether two different Texas players show up with their A-games.)
What strategic approach do you take if you're coaching this game? If I'm Rick Barnes I want to get the best of both worlds--effective half court possessions when we need them (running things through Pittman), and as much up-tempo full-court play as UNC allows. I want Brown, Bradley, Hamilton, and Balbay operating in space, and I'm worried about how well they'll perform against the Heels' length in a half court game.
On the flipside, then, it'll be interesting to see whether Roy Williams intends to make us "prove it" in a controlled, half court game. UNC likes to get out and run on the secondary break, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but would mitigate substantially their potential advantage in the paint.
The name of the game is distribution. Finally, if there's a second big worry I have about this match up it's that I could see Texas floundering haphazardly from a domino effect of poor distribution. It could happen any number of ways, but here's one: Imagine that Dogus neutralizes himself with hesitation to penetrate, and Pittman is either unavailable with fouls or smothered by UNC's defensive focus on him. What's the offense? With this group, there definitely exist other approaches Texas could emphasize and thrive in, but at least as likely the bad dominoes could continue falling, starting with Damion James trying to do more on his own, which not only would marginalize the tremendous value James produces from his targeted game, but would prevent Texas from settling into any of the healthy approaches that put the young scorers in positions to succeed. Before long--with at this point Texas almost assuredly behind in the game--there's no coherent operation at all and we start to see a lot of individual attempts to get a shot off. Most would be bad shots. And the train is off the tracks.
Implicit in the example I gave is concern that Texas will have a plan for this game and the young guys will defer too much to it if that plan goes south for any reason. My focus here will be on Dogus and Bradley, who if hesitant and passive have the capacity to severely hamstring our offense. Inversely, of course, I see in good games from them precisely the kind of perimeter attackers you need to get out in front of the Tar Heels. I'll just call it now and hope for the best (or that I'm wrong): If Balbay and Bradley are assertive, forceful creators--pushing the full court at any good opportunity and, in half court sets, attacking the paint with purpose--Texas wins, and feasibly by a comfortable margin. If they both struggle and hesitate, I expect other dominoes will fall and they aren't the kind a Rick Barnes team is great at correcting mid-game--UNC wins it.
PREDICTION: Texas 77 UNC 71