Game Recap: The now unranked Texas Longhorns (16-7, 5-4) broke their three game losing streak in emphatic fashion with a 99-74 drubbing of Oklahoma State. This was an absolute ‘must win’ for the Longhorns, and they really left no doubt from the opening moments. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to the full review until now and most everyone has heard about the game, seen highlights, and been discussing it in the post-game comments thread, so I’ll just offer a few brief points before pointing to our next ‘must win’ game at Colorado.
The outcome was: Pleasing. I didn’t really allow myself to think about how I would react had the ‘Horns dropped their fourth straight, but I can tell you that the season was very much on the line last night at the Drum. Texas couldn’t afford to fall below .500 in the conference both in practical terms of making the tournament and in terms of confidence. Credit Rick Barnes with adding Dogus Balbay to the starting lineup in place of the struggling Connor Atchley, playing small ball, and challenging his ‘Horns to win by playing to Oklahoma State strength. The team responded beautifully. Balbay was an instant difference maker on both ends. The smaller lineup allowed for better spacing, crisper ball movement, and fewer turnovers. The guard-oriented Cowboys weren’t able to put Texas in jeopardy defensively in the paint, and the quicker Longhorn lineup was better at pressuring the basketball, congesting passing lanes, and converting turnovers into easy baskets. I’m not completely sure that Texas can afford to play so small against every opponent but when you shoot over 60% from the floor, only turn the ball over seven times, and win the battle on the glass you become almost impossible to beat against just about anyone.
Stats of the Game: 7 turnovers, 19 assists. 57% field goal percentage, 84% free throws. And the list goes on. Offensively, this was by far Texas’ best performance of the year. Considering the pace of the game, Texas had their second best offensive efficiency number, their best effective field goal percentage, the third lowest turnover percentage, and the fourth highest free throw rate of the season. (Game plan Ken Pomeroy) Even if you don’t understand those statistics perfectly, it is easy to see that this was an outstanding offensive performance. It was so good and so efficient that even though Oklahoma State shot over 50% from the field, they got run out of the gym.
The Offensive MVP was: Too many to choose from. In the most recent losses finding even one Longhorn to single out as an offensive star has been difficult. Against OSU, that nod could go to any one of five Longhorns. Take a look at these stats:
Dogus Balbay: 10 points, seven assists, two steals and just one turnover in 33 minutes. He was the difference maker in the game and has the potential to be a season changer for Texas. Defenses are still not playing him to shoot even mid-range jumpers, so he must continue to attack the rim and look for his shot when he gets both feet into the paint.
Connor Atchley: 14 points, four rebounds, one block, one assist, and one steal in 20 minutes. There you are. This is the Connor we know and love. Texas is now 22-0 when Atchley scores in double figures. It hasn’t happened often. All three previous games in double figures came in November. Connor’s ability to stretch the floor and extend the defense significantly opens the lane for Balbay, Mason, and James and makes it more difficult for defenses to double team Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson on the low block.
AJ Abrams: 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting, one rebound, and two steals in 29 minutes. More than two points per attempt is incredible efficiency for AJ. Credit Dogus and Mason for finding Abrams in transition for easy looks as the defense over-retreated and credit AJ with playing within himself and the offense. This is the AJ Texas needs for future success.
Damion James: 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block in 30 minutes. DaMo is still a little too in love with mid-range jump shots against slower defenders but the move back to the power forward spots allows him to be more aggressive on the glass and should provide him some easier opportunities to draw fouls and earn points at the line.
Justin Mason: 6 points, six rebounds, six assists, and no turnovers in 34 minutes. If Barnes elects to stay small, this is exactly the kind of line that he’ll need from Mase. From off the ball and with three guards on the floor, it is important for Justin to compete on the glass on both ends.
The Defensive MVP was: Team Defense. Overall our team defense wasn’t incredible except we created 17 turnovers and scored 23 points off those turnovers. When the Cowboys weren’t coughing up offensive possessions, they were more than efficient enough on offense to win the game. Thankfully, the Texas pressure was too much for OSU to handle.
(1) Confidence Matters. The rims weren’t any bigger at the Erwin Center on Tuesday night they just appeared that way to Texas players. When players hit their first shot or two, the game starts to come a lot easier. You think less and play more; it feels like the game is slower. You don’t second guess every dribble, every cut, and every shot. You start to play within the flow of the offense and become not an individual player trying to get an open look but a team trying to put the ball in the basket. As silly as that sounds, putting the ball in the basket is the only way you win. It doesn’t matter how good you are defensively, unless you score, you can’t win. From the opening tip, Texas attacked the basket and got easy looks in the paint or open jumpers off those penetrations. Fans could literally see confidence rising as Connor and AJ sank their first couple of jumpers and Balbay scored on two acrobatic fast break lay ups. Confidence matters and quick starts matter. Texas made 19 baskets in the first half against OSU. The Horns only made 19 baskets in the entire game just days earlier against Nebraska. Barnes took a chance midway through conference season with a significant lineup change and it paid off huge in its first showing.
(2) Saturday afternoon is a MUST WIN. Texas is back above .500, within striking difference of fourth place in the conference, and a first round bye in the Big XII tournament. Not only is a first round bye important for our success in the conference tournament, but finishing in the top four will guarantee an NCAA tournament bid. In order to stay on track and safely in the NCAA field, Texas needs to win nine conference games. And winning at Colorado, the conference’s worst team, is the next step in that process.
NEXT GAME: AWAY at Colorado – Saturday 2/14 1:00 p.m. ESPN