The outcome was: Invigorating. After Texas' discouraging double-digit loss in College Station, the team's fourth loss in six games, fans were running out of reasons to remain optimistic. For all intents and purposes, Saturday's game against Oklahoma looked like a must-win not just for the team, but for fans, as well. As I wrote Thursday:
At the very least Saturday's game provides what is probably the last best chance for fans of the team to enjoy rooting through the end with one more dose of optimism. As much success as we've enjoyed of late, appreciating that particular kind of enjoyment isn't the first that usually comes to mind, if it comes at all.
But count me among those who, despite the most recent painful setback to the elevation in team play we've hoped for, wants very much for a Saturday win to fuel in me one last burst of fan energy on which I can sustain close scrutiny of the team -- long enough, at the least, to put off one last time the eulogy on this team's quest to elevate above merely good.
Mission accomplished. Whether or not Texas' critical win last night sparks the kind of late-season elevation in play I've been hoping for, fans at least have good reason to tune in and watch closely to find out.
Stat of the Game: Oklahoma 6-8 FTs The Sooners' offense thrives as much on its ability to generate trips to the foul line as anything else and in the teams' first meeting in Norman, OU shot 29 free throws in the game. From the get-go last night, Texas drastically improved its defensive effort against the Sooners, sparked in large part by outstanding effort by Dexter Pittman. Before his injury, Sooner star Blake Griffin wasn't just being held in check -- he was being dominated. In 11 minutes, Griffin had just 2 points, 3 boards, 2 fouls, 2 turnovers, and too-many-to-count frustrated pouty faces. For the crybaby Sooners out there, they should probably be glad Griffin left when he did -- there were more than a few NBA scouts on hand last night.
Offensive MVP: AJ Abrams 23 points, 8-17 FGs, 5-11 3PFG, 2-2 FTs AJ Abrams' truly significant contributions to Texas over the last four years have probably gone a bit underappreciated, overshadowed equally by true superstars and his own limitations (and more specifically, how bad he can look when trying to play beyond them). For that reason I'm especially happy for Abrams, who had a true legacy game, his 18 points in the game's final 8 minutes, including 16 straight, constituted one of the best individual performances I've ever seen at Texas. You have to go all the way back to Kevin Durant's first half performance at Kansas to find something as comparably jaw-dropping as AJ's takeover. Though last night's win was unquestionably a team effort, Willie Warren's outrageous second half necessitated a superstar individual performance from one of our own. Last night, AJ Abrams was a superstar. Congrats to the senior.
Defensive MVP: Dexter Pittman Big Dexter's potential has always been obvious, but there's been no guarantee that the feet would ever quite get to the point where he'd be everything the rest of him says he could be. Steadily, he's progressed, and last night he showed that he's on the brink. Certainly, the job he did using his feet to keep his body in the right position guarding Blake Griffin was the best sign to date that he can play professional ball. Dexter's feet properly moving, Blake Griffin found that his usual moves weren't cerating the usual space that they do against other players. Dexter Pittman was still in his way. Not only did Pittman suffocate Griffin's operating space, but Griffin became visibly flustered and started playing out of control. Within minutes he was on the bench with two fouls.
1. The Dogus Manifesto lives. My hopes for several months that Balbay could come on late to spark this team on offense are more alive than ever, his progress peaking in last night's outstanding 10 point, 9 assist, 2 turnover effort. Incredibly, he's blowing by defenders who are literally sagging as much as 5-8 feet off of him because he can't shoot the ball. Reading BON this year, it's clear a majority of Texas fans vastly underappreciate how explosive he is with the ball in his hands. Let me try to be clear, then: He's unquestionably more explosive than DJ Augustin. Before you get defensive and try to dismiss the claim, I'm not saying Dogus is a better player. DJ was the better all-around player, both as a freshman and, by a wide-margin, during his stellar sophomore season. Even so, Augustin at times struggled to penetrate against elite defenders. We've not yet see anyone who can stay in front of Balbay. If he can continue to progress rapidly with what he does with the ball once he gets by people, Texas is a legitimate threat to play into the NCAA's second weekend.
2. The rest of the team is still learning to play with Balbay. On the relatively minor side, there seem to be a few missed entry passes which seem to surprise Texas' forwards, who, to be fair, are probably as surprised as the rest of us that there are post-entry passes even being made. But the big thing that I saw last night was how poorly Balbay's teammates did running the floor with him. The kid absolutely flies up the court, and when someone goes with him, he finds them, and with the defense in flux, there's space to score. The problem, though, is that Texas isn't sprinting out with him once possession has changed. Improvement in that area could lead to a doubling in transition points scored.
3. Signs the offensive pieces are in the right place. When Damion James is grabbing 7 offensive boards and scoring 8 points just on his athleticism near the rim, that's as sure a sign as any that the pieces are in the right place. Not coincidentally, James also looks more confident and more eager to call for the ball and look to score. His rise up J at the elbow in the second half came after he curled around a screen and actually called for the basketball -- a near-identical score to his game winner at Pauley Pavilion last season.
4. Player notes. It might well have been that brutal tongue injury (32 stitches) holding Connor Atchley back. He's beginning to contribute with more consistency many of the things we've come to expect... Willie Warren put on quite a show, but credit to Varez Ward and Justin Mason for making him do most his damage from long range (18 of his 27 points on threes). Both Texas guards took turns doing as well as can be hoped to keep the ultra-quick Warren from breaking down the defense on the dribble... Speaking of Ward and Mason, if either could contribute 8-10 points of offense per game, the Texas offense would be a menace... Gary Johnson hasn't quite put all the pieces together yet, but he's showing off his robust skill set. Though I reflexively want to cringe when he shoots a 15-18 footer, he may have the best shooting form on the team and delivers a beautifully arching shot each time. His ability to score inside among lengthy defenders is a work-in-progress, but as he continues to better channel his body strength in the right ways, he'll continue to increase his productivity in the paint... Count Saturday's seven minutes from Clint Chapman as his first performance of the season that I liked. His defensive intensity communicated an understanding of what Barnes expects, he pulled down a rebound in traffic with actual authority, and finished one inside in traffic. Texas will take that.
Remaining schedule: Wednesday, 2/25 vs Texas Tech (8:30 p.m.), 2/28 at Oklahoma State, 3/2 vs Baylor, 3/7 at Kansas