Horns get good draw. Or, according to Chip Brown ($), a "dream draw." Minnesota doesn't have an efficient offense and is the best match up for the Longhorns of all the 10 seeds -- avoiding USC, Michigan, and Maryland, all teams that could cause problems for the 'Horns. Trips Right likes Texas against Minnesota because the interior players for the Gophers won't involve Pittman in pick-and-roll situations that can pressure his lateral movement or get him in foul trouble.
The Duke match up is also as favorable for the Longhorns as it could be, according to Trips, who breaks it down to which coach has to make the adjustment about Dexter Pittman. If Coach K has to go with Zoubek to stop PIttman, the Longhorns have a great chance at winning. However, if Lance Thomas and the Duke help defense can neutralize Pittman, Duke will have a big advantage at the offensive end, particularly if they can get hot from deep. Good stuff from the Barking writer -- I can't think of anything to add about the Duke game.
Keys to success in the tournament. The Longhorns have struggled all season to maintain any level of consistency in play. It's truly been a roller-coaster ride. However, there are some things the Longhorns can do consistently to help themselves win.
- Get Dexy the ball. The Texas offense was clicking when running the high/low offense Rick Barnes installed late in the season. It's effective when the 'Horns run it, but only is the only perimeter player capable of making the entry pass, meaning he must catch the ball at a very specific spot on the floor -- the 45-degree angle on the wing -- and have enough separation to enter the ball. If Abrams doesn't have the pass, the other big has to flash to the top of the key quickly to make the entry pass over the top. Teams are more ready for this than they were, pressuring the big making the entry pass and doubling down from the weakside to help, where the other guard isn't a threat to shoot.
- Get James catches near the basket. Against Kansas State, James spent much of the game in foul trouble, picking up three offensive fouls by the end of the contest. He's a turnover machine when he catches the ball behind the arc and attempts to dribble-drive, with three give-aways against Baylor and four against Kansas State. However, if he can catch the ball in the mid range, his game is infinitely better and his turnover rate decreases drastically.
Can Dogus handle the pressure? Minnesota may well press, putting the pressure on Dogus Balbay to make good decisions with the basketball. Against Kansas State, Balbay was as bad as he has been handling the ball all season, turning it over five times, often carelessly. Under Tubby Smith the Gophers don't use a pressure defense as consistently, as teams like Missouri or Louisville, but they will occasionally press to exploit an opposing guard with a shaky handle. If Balbay makes mistakes early, Rick Barnes won't be afraid to attach his backside to the bench.
Crash the defensive glass. Kansas State killed the Longhorns on the offensive glass with 15 offensive rebounds, a skill they possess in ample quantifies -- they are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing an astonishing 42.1% of their misses. Minnesota isn't nearly as proficient, ranking 69th in the country, pulling down 36% of their missed shots. Minnesota does have some active bigs and could give the Longhorns trouble if they don't block out. Minnesota isn't going to consistently beat teams on the offensive glass, but it's been a problem recently for Texas.
- Balbay's defense improved. PB's Basketball Report v. 2.7 sparked a lengthy debate in the comments sections about the merits of Dogus Balbay's defense, with my contribution regarding Balbay's issues avoiding foul far out on the perimeter. Since that time, Balbay has been much improved in the area, not committing any fouls away from the basket during the last several games, an impossible task for him during much of the season. If he can continue to play good on-the-ball defense without fouling he could be a significant force on the defensive end in the tournament.
Gopher sophomore has flair for the dramatic. Blake Hoffarber. If the name rings a bell somewhere deep in the back of your mind, it should. Take a moment to refresh your memory with the clip below, perhaps:
Most Amazing Basketball Shot Ever (via Petersoncinema)
Hoffarber certainly could have called it quits after that incredible shot to send the game into overtime for the state championship in Minnesota and always been famous, but when you have that kind of flair for the dramatic, why stop there? Playing for his home state school as a freshman last season, Hoffarber further cemented his place in basketball lore during the Big 10 Tournament, hitting another ridiculous shot:
Minnesota-Indiana: Blake Hoffarber miracle shot (via trojanloy)
It's not all circus shots for Hoffarber, though compared to a solid freshman season that saw him average more than eight points per game and knock down more than 40% of his three-point attempts, he has suffered from the proverbial sophomore slump, with his scoring average, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three-point percentage, and assist-to-turnover ratio all down from his freshman season.
If he gets hot, it's from the three-point line, hitting 6-10 against Ohio State this season and 5-8 against Colorado State. Given his propensity for making big shots in big moments, if the game is close coming down to the wire, watch out for Hoffarber, as he would no doubt like to add a game-winning shot in the NCAA Tournament to his constantly-growing list of ridiculous shots.
Getting to know Lawrence Westbrook. The cousin of Brian Westbrook, the Eagles running back, junior guard Lawrence leads the Golden Gophers in scoring at 12.4 points per game, the only player on the team to average in double digits. At six feet tall, Westbrook is undersized for an off guard and doesn't shoot the three-pointer particularly well, peaking at 39% his sophomore season before regressing to 35% this season.
He isn't a player to close out on out of control, but is a streaky shooter, able to knock down three or more if he hits the first one or starts feeling good about himself. One way Westbrook starts feeling good about himself is by getting to the free-throw line, where he shoots 85%. Basically, the idea for the Texas guards is not to let Westbrook do what Jacob Pullen did for Kansas State on Thursday -- hitting some wide-open looks to get himself in rhythm, then using foul shots to find the confidence to make even more difficult shots. Make things consistently difficult early by taking away open rhythm looks from outside and not bailing him out when he gets in the lane -- keep him off the free-throw line.
Westbrook doesn't create much for his teammates, averaging only 1.5 assists per game, a rate lower than teammate Damian Johnson, a 6-7 forward. Strangely, when Westbrook does create for his teammates Minnesota struggles -- 1-3 in games Westbrook had four or more assists. For the season, Westbrook has 18 more turnovers than assists -- 63 to 45. For comparison, AJ Abrams, much maligned for his supposed lack of playmaking ability, has only three more turnovers than assists, 46 to 43.
If the Longhorn guards can put pressure on Westbrook, he does sometimes make poor decisions with the ball, committing four turnovers on four separate occasions, while managing only two assists in those games. It might be a game to pressure Minnesota, taking the ball out of the hands of primary ball-handler Al Nolen and forcing Westbrook to make decisions -- a great assignment for Varez Ward, who could really bother the smaller player. Dogus Balbay is another option, with his pressuring perimeter defense.
Tubby Smith was concerned enough about the decision making of Westbrook and fellow starter Nolen to bench them for the final two games of the regular season, a time that saw Minnesota fighting for their post-season life. A strong statement from Tubby, who is hoping that his leading scorer can stay under control against the Longhorns. When Texas struggled in the middle of the conference season, it was while opposing guards torched Texas -- think Denis Clemente and Corey Higgins -- making it critical for the Longhorns to keep Westbrook from becoming the 2009 WTF? Scorer, v. 3.0.
Another gut-check against Missouri. Last season, it took extreme adversity in the form of two incredibly ugly performances against Missouri for Chance Ruffin to step up and become the leader of the team. The team this season is in much better shape, coming into the Sunday game against the Tigers at 13-2 and ranked number one in the country. However, the Longhorns split the first two games in a double-header on Saturday, struggling once again to score runs, leaving Sunday as the rubber game in the series.
Even with the supposedly hitter-friendly lineup including Russell Moldenhauer and Michael Torres against tough right-handed Nick Tepesch, the Longhorns managed only 1 run in the first eight innings against the Mizzou starter, taking poor swings and making poor contact for most of the afternoon.
Finally, down 3-1 in the ninth, Texas scored three runs to win the game on an error by the shortstop, trying to complete a double play that would have ended the Texas threat with the game tied. Kevin Keyes pinch hit to provide his trademark power, driving a 2-2 offering to the deepest part of the ballpark for a double and the first run of the inning. Travis Tucker followed with a single poked over the second baseman's head on an 0-2 count to tie the game and Michael Torres put the ball in play with two strikes that led to the final error and Texas victory.
Augie preaches concentration, a trait the Longhorns showed at the plate during the final inning, but something they need to do more consistently before it's almost too late. Don't press at the plate, but approach each at-bat with full mental concentration brought to bear. It's impossible to do so all the time in baseball, but doing it when the game is on the line is certainly a major asset to a team and demonstrates the resiliency that defines champions.
It's too early to say this team is championship-caliber, but wins like Sunday start making you want to believe.
Sick pitching, slick fielding. It's a time-tested recipe for success honed by head chief Augie. Prepared lovingly, with just the right pinch of situational hitting, the 2005 team had the exact ingredients and prep skills to make a sixth championship a reality, with a staff era of 2.80, led by starters Kenn Kasparek, Kyle McCulloch, and Adrian Alaniz, each with an ERA under 3.00, and only 62 errors on the season, a .978 fielding percentage.
If the early returns on the season are an indication, the 2009 team is gathering the ingredients together to finally make a run at a return to Omaha. Defensively, the fielding percentage is currently within two plays out of one thousand of the 2005 team, with a .980 fielding percentage marred only by the uneven play of David Hernandez, who has committed seven of the team's 12 errors, including four against Texas State. For some reason, Hernandez had a reputation coming in as a good defensive shortstop and light hitter, but made 20 errors last season for an unsightly .927 fielding percentage, far too low for a shortstop, while exceeding expectations at the plate. Since Brandon Loy is a natural shortstop, Hernandez's job could be in jeopardy if he doesn't field better, but moving Preston Clark to third, the most likely replacement for Loy probably won't happen and Tant Shepard, who played some third last season, seems to have moved to the outfield permanently.
Back to the positives. Check out the pitching stats. Yes, they are real. The top five pitchers on the staff -- Austin Wood, Taylor Jungmann, Brandon Workman, Cole Green, and Chance Ruffin -- all have ERA's under 2.00, with the team sitting at a cool 1.41. In fact, the pitching has been so completely dominating that none of those five even allow opponents to bat over .200 againt them, led by Brandon Workman, who allows a paltry .108 batting average to opposing hitters. Is it a fluke? No, though the numbers will undoubtedly climb at least a little bit during the conference season.
That group of five really is that good, with the only weak link on the staff looking like senior left-hander and junkballer Keith Shinaberry. The submariner has a low ERA at 1.93, which is deceptive, as he's given up five runs in 4.2 innings, as many runs as Cole Green has given up in 27.1. His control isn't the issue, as he hasn't walked anyone, the problem is that he isn't fooling anyone, giving up eight hits and two of the five home runs given up by the staff. That's 40% of the home runs in 3.3% of the innings. That's bad. I've been done with Shinaberry for years as anything more than a situational left-hander, which should be the absolute extent of his role. He probably can't single-handedly keep the Longhorns from going deep into the post season, but he could certainly lose an important game in or on the way to Omaha.
Besides Shinaberry, the rest of the pitching staff may be the best staff the Longhorns have put together in a long, long time. And just think, if they fall short this season, all of the major contributors besides Austin Wood will return in 2010. That's gotta be enough to make baseball coaches around the Big 12 openly weep.
As for the 2009 team, the ingredients are there for post season success if the pitching can hold up and the offense can improve over the course of the season. For the first time since 2005, this is a Texas baseball team as Augie Garrido would want it constructed and that is an absoutely beautiful thing for a Texas baseball fan spoiled by the 2002-05 run.