In this week's report:
- Texas Tech game recap
- A macro look at Texas' defensive struggles
- Race for the Big 12 postseason
(1) TEXAS HOLDS OFF TECH, 87-81
Though Texas Tech (12-16, 2-11) led the Longhorns 43-38 at half and battled Texas right down to the wire, we're moving into that time of the year when all wins -- even particularly sloppy ones -- are happy results. The win improves Rick Barnes' squad to 19-8 on the season and 8-5 in conference play, now a full game ahead of Kansas State (74-94 losers at Missouri tonight) for fourth place in the standings. (The Big 12's top four regular season finishers receive a first-round bye in the post-season tournament.)
While Texas will gladly pocket the victory, tonight the team's defensive struggles continued. The Red Raiders managed 43 first half points thanks to 6-10 three point shooting, and shot nearly 50% on field goals for the game. The Longhorns did a poor job stopping John Roberson's penetration, were frequently slow closing out on Tech's perimeter shooters, and flirted with a single game NCAA record for most head fake-induced fly-bys. Credit to the Red Raiders, who from the opening tip made clear they intended to compete, building the halftime lead behind a truly impressive performance by junior guard Nick Okorie.
Though in the second half Texas didn't fully stomp out the Red Raiders, the Longhorns aggressively amped up their intensity on both ends of the floor. Defensively, there were still lapses in transition defense and a frustrating number of loose balls which the Longhorns failed to snag, but Texas did a markedly better job playing man-to-man against Tech's halfcourt sets, staying with and in front of their backourt players. The 'Horns adjustments on offense were even more stark, with exceptional results. After a disheartening and seemingly directionless first half on offense, Texas emerged from halftime with clear purpose: After shooting 9 first-half three point shots (making only 2), Texas cut the attempts down to 5 in the second half, as each and every player made concerted efforts to attack the Red Raiders off the dribble and around the rim. The physically outmatched Raiders couldn't stop Texas without fouling and the 'Horns secured for themselves 25 second half free throw attempts, of which they made 19.
Of particular importance, for the second straight game Damion James put his freakish athleticism to productive use down on the post blocks. With his long range jump shot MIA all year and mid-range game too inconsistent to overuse, James has of late returned to the small forward position with which he's most comfortable. Tonight, James finished just 4-10 from the field, bu he racked upt a whopping 15 free throws (12 made) en route to an outstanding 20 point, 11 rebound, 3 assist, 0 turnover, 3 block, 1 steal game.
Elsewhere, Dogus Balbay turned in his second-straight career high in points, his 11 points one better than the 10 scored Saturday versus Oklahoma. And AJ Abrams (24 points, 4-9 on threes), though decidedly cooler tonight than when we last saw him, for the most part did a good job taking scoring looks that were available, with only two or three truly regrettable shot selections from long-range. For the cherry on top, Clint Chapman -- who logged a career high 22 minutes with Gary Johnson out on a bad ankle -- played once again with improved intensity and confidence, chipping in 7 points on the evening.
All told, while the win fell somewhere well short of impressive, the Longhorns on offense accomplished something they could not just three weeks ago against Nebraska -- win a game by asserting themselves consistently and coherently against a physically outmatched opponent. More on that below.
(2) HERE COMES THE OFFENSE! (THERE GOES THE DEFENSE)
In hindsight, Texas' 78-72 road win over Baylor created something of a mirage. Dogus Balbay for the first time impacted a game with sustained contributions and the Longhorns' offense exploded for 50 second half points (many coming in transition). Despite no-shows from Gary Johnson (fouls) and Damion James (wretched shooting), Texas managed to pick up what looked like a potentially corner-turning win on the road over what we thought was a very solid Baylor team.
Wrong. Way, way wrong. As it turned out, Baylor proved to be embarking on a season-ending nosedive, while the Longhorns immediately dropped three straight contests of their own -- back-to-back home games against Kansas State and Missouri, followed by a road tilt at Nebraska. What I prematurely characterized as Balbay's Baylor breakout turned out to be a one-hit wonder, with forgettable encores against KSU (14 minutes, 1 point, 1 assist), Missouri (2 minutes, 0 points, 0 assists), and Nebraska (26 minutes, 1 point, 2 assists). When the final buzzer sounded in Lincoln, the Texas team which walked off the court had managed an embarrassing 26 points of second half offense. Losers of three straight, the team suddenly seemed as vulnerable to total collapse as it had two weeks prior seemed poised for a surge. Sitting down to write the preview for the team's next game against Oklahoma State felt like trying to take seriously a film review session for a youth tee ball league. The Longhorns appeared to be that lost -- certainly on offense.
What did the Longhorns do next? As has been the hallmark of this team, they completely reversed course, running Oklahoma State out of the Erwin Center behind a 99-point offensive outburst. Dogus Balbay got the starting nod and started attacking the rim with newfound purpose, racking up 10 points and 7 assists, his dribble penetration creating lay ups for himself or open space in which his teammates could thrive. So welcome a surprise was Texas' offensive explosion, we all but ignored the team's merely adequate defense. And later in the week, when the 'Horns barely escaped Boulder with an overtime win, there simply wasn't much hand-wringing about Texas' second-straight mediocre defensive performance. It wasn't until two days later, following Texas' dismal performance on Big Monday in College Station, that we began to notice and pay attention to the sudden devolution in defense.
Fast forward to today, and this season has produced yet another layer of discontinuity atop an already up-and-down season. To get an idea of the complete 180 that's taken place, take a look at Texas' advanced stats since the Baylor game:
|Data courtesy KenPom.com||Offense||Defense|
|Sat Jan 31||Kansas St. (sked)||L, 85-81||H||76||94.7||44.4||23.4||35.9||61.9||99.3||45.6||18.7||36.2||51.5|
|Wed Feb 4||Missouri (sked)||L, 69-65||H||69||94.5||44.9||21.8||35.3||33.9||100.3||48.4||10.2||28.2||31.1|
|Sat Feb 7||Nebraska (sked)||L, 58-55||A||59||93.5||45.9||27.2||39.1||28.6||98.6||45.0||17.0||32.8||38.0|
|Tue Feb 10||Oklahoma St. (sked)||W, 99-74||H||72||137.9||62.9||9.8||28.6||53.5||103.1||59.8||23.7||12.0||54.4|
|Sat Feb 14||Colorado (sked)||W, 85-76||A||61||124.5||63.0||16.1||34.4||51.9||111.3||54.3||22.0||27.4||61.7|
|Mon Feb 16||Texas A&M (sked)||L, 81-66||A||63||104.8||46.5||23.8||52.9||32.8||128.6||55.3||15.9||48.4||36.8|
|Sat Feb 21||Oklahoma (sked)||W, 73-68||H||66||111.4||50.8||12.2||35.7||13.8||103.8||50.8||21.4||34.7||13.1|
|Wed Feb 25||Texas Tech (sked)||W, 87-81||H||69||126.2||48.3||14.5||52.0||74.1||117.5||56.9||17.4||36.1||36.2|
Bizarre, isn't it? No sooner does Texas turn a corner with the offense, when the defense falls apart. (At this point, the only consistent thing about this season has been the inconsistency, to such a degree that I'm having to strain not to conclude fatefully about Texas' upcoming game in Stillwater: "unwatchable collapse.")
Moving beyond fears of this season producing still more warning-less pendulum swings, I don't think it unreasonable to view optimistically Texas' recent trend. The biggest concern about this Texas team has been that there never would arrive an offensive breakthrough. Though the players are both athletic and (until recently) defensive-minded enough to make the team a good one (even a dangerous one, in any given game), the offense has been so prone to prolonged periods of ineptitude so as to preclude realistically hoping for postseason success.
At long last, not only is this team demonstrating meaningful signs of offensive progress, but I don't believe the accompanying slip on defense should be seen equally troubling as were/are protracted offensive slumps. For starters, I suspect some of the recent defensive slippage is a direct result of the all-hands-on-deck emergency that was the Texas offense after Lincoln. Not only do I imagine Rick Barnes was spending most of his practice capital on offensive issues, but also that urgency to rescue the offense could have carried over with the players a bit to the games. Second, though at the collegiate level a lot goes into excellent team defense, it remains the case that a significant part of the equation is good ol' hard work, hustle, and concentration. To the extent players are better able to "turn it on" defensively than offensively, a lapse in the former is easier to cure. And finally, it is a different, more navigable challenge to reclaim an old skill than to learn a new one. Texas has been an above-average defensive team for most of the season, a fact which only assuages my concerns.
The offense, of course, is a ways from proving anything just yet, but the improvement is real. Should Texas continue to maintain and improve upon its recent elevated offensive play, while kicking things back up a notch on defense....
(3) BIG 12 STANDINGS AND RACE FOR THE BYES
|TEAM||GAME 1||GAME 2||GAME 3|
|1. Kansas (12-1)||MU||@ TECH||TX|
|2. Oklahoma (11-2)||@ TECH||@ MU||OSU|
|3. Missouri (11-2)||@ KU||OU||@ A&M|
|4. Texas (8-5)||@ OSU||BU||@ KU|
|5. Kansas St (7-6)||NEB||@ OSU||CU|
|6. Oklahoma St (7-6)||TX||KSU||@ OU|
|7. Texas A&M (6-7)||ISU||@ CU||MU|
|8. Nebraska (6-7)||@ KSU||ISU||@ BU|
|9. Baylor (4-9)||CU||@ TX||NEB|
|10. Iowa St (3-10)||@ A&M||@ NEB||TECH|
|11. Texas Tech (2-11||OU||KU||@ ISU|
|12. Colorado (1--12)||@ BU||A&M||@ KSU|
If before now you were unsure just how big a game is Texas' Saturday trip to Stillwater, you are now. Assuming Texas can hold serve against Baylor next Monday, the path to 10 conference wins includes a win at either Gallagher-Iba or Allen Fieldhouse, two of the nastiest places in the entire country for opposing teams to win.
Looking at the schedule, nine wins probably won't cut it for Texas: Kansas State, with seven wins and two winnable home games to come, should get to 9-7 and own the tiebreak with Texas thanks to their head-to-head win. With a win Saturday, Oklahoma State's chance of getting to nine wins also look good, potentially throwing Texas into a tiebreak scenario. It's not inconceivable that A&M or Nebraska could get to nine, as well. A nine-win Texas team would win tiebreaks with A&M and OSU, but not Nebraska or Kansas State. A win Saturday against the surging Cowboys would make me feel a whole lot better.