Saturday, Mar 21, 2009, 7:15 PM CDT
NCAA Tournament - East Region - Second Round - Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
TELEVISION: CBS (Jim Nantz & Clark Kellogg)
RADIO: 98.1 FM, 1300 AM
LAS VEGAS: Duke -7
KENPOM: DUKE 72-67
Walking away from the Meadowlands in 2005 someone in my group asked which part of the horror show we'd just witnessed was worse -- the performers or their costumes. The performers, of course, were the 2005 Longhorns who'd just lost by 31 points to Duke, and their costumes on that day were the infamous black jerseys. Three years later and I'm not sure the stench from that game has ever fully cleared, but finally, tonight, Texas gets another crack at the opponent which served the vicious beatdown. Only this time the stakes are for keeps -- loser ends their season while the winner packs for Boston and the East Regional Semifinals.
Thoughts on the match up after the jump.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. THE FOUL GAME. Though part of me wonders if I'm over-obsessing or stating the obvious, the way I see things it would be impossible to overstate how decisive a factor fouls are likely to be for Texas tonight. I'd break the larger category into a few sub-issues:
How will the officials referee Dexter Pittman? Though far less so than earlier in his career (and even this season), there are still times when officials unfairly penalize him for his size. Starting with his footwork: I can think of 3-4 phantom travel calls where the officials literally either blew a whistle in anticipation of a Pittman travel or called steps after negligently concluding the big guy couldn't have arrived where he did without traveling.
Dexter's Pivot-Dropstep-Flush catches some officials by surprise..
Likewise, it's not uncommon for Pittman to get nailed for contact fouls that only draw whistles because of his size. Since the very first time he stepped on a college basketball court, Dexter Pittman has had to overcome something approximating a presumption of fouling -- where refs are actually anticipating a Pittman foul on a given play and then watching to see if he doesn't, rather than the way players are normally officiated, where nothing is assumed and the officials watch for and react to any fouls they may spot.
Now, to be fair, a big part of that problem was Pittman's own fault, as he was, well, fouling. A lot. Almost, I admit, predictably. But credit Dexter both for putting in the practice time to develop his natural skills and for committing all the way to Todd Wright's conditioning program. Throughout his junior year, and especially the last 6 weeks, Pittman has put it all together in terms of his improved body control, attention to footwork, and sustained mental focus. Though for the most part referees seem to have noticed and officiated him fairly, his presence and productivity are so important tonight that I can't help but worry about a tough call or two which could force him to the bench. Knock on wood.
How will Dexter Pittman move Dexter Pittman? To finish the thought, Pittman himself has to be the defender we've seen since the Oklahoma game when he started getting light on his toes to avoid reaches and leans. With his massive wide frame, that's all it takes, as even a moderate amount of lateral movement keeps his body in a position offensive players can't get around. (Recall Blake Griffin's attempts before The Great Sulk.) Along with light feet and staying vertical from his base, Dexy's got to be careful both when hedging and crashing the glass without position. Though I led with a plea for fairness from the officials, it's Pittman himself who controls the bulk of his fouling fate. Two or three mental mistakes would be devastating to Texas' chances. Be smart, Big Sexy.
Will Texas be able to stop penetration without sending Duke to the line? Duke has three players who have been to the free throw line this season 164 times or more (Henderson 164, Singler 165, Scheyer 199). For some perspective, no Texas player has been to the line more than 150 times. The Blue Devils guards don't blow by anyone, but their guards are smart with the ball in their hands -- particularly Scheyer, who is surprisingly adept getting into the paint, often combining on-ball screens and good body technique to gain a step. Duke's motion also calls for a steady stream of high-low cuts originating weakside and flowing to the paint. Regardless of how this group gets into the paint, it's trouble once they do, as they're well-drilled robots who know excel drawing contact in traffic.
It's an interesting question as to how Rick Barnes should guard the perimeter. As part of his excellent write-up over at Barking Carnival, Trips Right says he wants to see Texas pressure the ball, but I'm not inclined to fully agree. From a scouting Duke perspective, I think Trips is right on the money, but in my view the risk-reward calculus is incomplete. Though Duke's guards don't possess consistent blow-by ability, I think the potential damage done by successful penetration has to include not just the benefits to Duke's offense, but also the heightened foul risk created for Damion James and Dexter Pittman. As difficult as it is to imagine Texas winning with either forward spending extended time on the bench, my preferred defensive game plan would be, at least in some regards, defensive. The Blue Devils only shoot 35% from three point range on the year, but if they start scorching hot from the perimeter and make Texas pay, you mix it up, pressure, and start taking some risks. But I like the idea of trying to buy time where the forwards are protected from foul situations and Duke's forced to shoot it with consistency..
2. Don't let Henderson get hot. When Henderson's grooving, he's a huge problem for defenses both as a scorer and a creator for his teammates. He can leap out of the gym, has the ability to create his own shot from 10-15 feet, and is a streaky but potent outside shooter. That's Henderson at his best. He also has a tendency to disappear, and when he's not confidently flying around on the offensive end, the lack of other creators can become a problem, leading Duke to settle for far too many three point attempts.
Though much stronger but less quick, Henderson is a problem player for defenses in the same way as is Willie Warren -- he's too versatile and freakishly athletic for a solo defender to consistently contest on the perimeter and take away penetration.However, in my view there's nothing at all wrong with "managing" Gerald Henderson, so to speak. I'd prefer to see Mason and Ward (both giving up 2-2.5 inches in height) focus on preventing Henderson from being a slasher, flashing double support quickly if Duke is feeding Henderson in iso for a post-up or dribble drive. Ideally, Rick will force Henderson to launch his offensive game as a jump shooter. If he misses a couple to open the game, becomes a little impatient having to drive and dish, and retreats at all from being a creator, that's a big bonus for Texas.
3. Restore Dogus Balbay's confidence. Since Dogus began struggling against Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament, Rick has been jerking him around a bit -- starting him, but with an increasingly short leash always met with heaps of verbal tongue lashing. Unfortunately, it's not working. For the past few games Balbay has not been aggressive like he was so effectively in February; rather, he's been looking like the December player who was trying to avoid mistakes, rather than create plays. Balbay needs to kick his mind back in to attack mode, but Barnes, too, may need to change whatever tact he's been using. It's painful to see Dogus out there giving back progress, and though it's great that Varez Ward has played well of late to pick up the slack, Texas is that much better if Balbay can get back to what he does well.
4. Take the cookie Duke gives you. Duke may have the better Team and is the higher seed following a stronger season performance. But... with Dexter Pittman's huge step forward to (literally) All-American-level basketball, the most challenging match up problems in this game lie with the Blue Devils. It's going to be imperative for Texas to identify the choice Duke is making to defend Pittman, and capitalize on whatever Coach K's decided to give up in exchange. If the Devils throw the kitchen sink at helping on Pittman touch, there should be (1) open looks for Abrams and/or (2) free cutting paths to the goal for Balbay or Ward. Note that this still requires Texas to work the entry to Dexter so he can draw the second defender. Ward and Balbay, of course, actually have to cut. Somebody else may need to refrain from jacking an 18 footer with 20 seconds on the shot clock. Etc.
Alternatively, if Duke decides to focus on taking away Abrams and gambles with trying to handle Dexter one-on-one, the Longhorns should be 100% committed to playing things inside out, over and over and over. If it takes 25-30 seconds of a possession to get the entry pass we want... so be it. Stay patient, run some offense, let Damion and Dexter screen for each other and get the ball inside to one of them on a block. In any case, whatever Duke winds up throwing at Texas, the counter-response needs to be measured.
5. Know your role. And that nicely leads in to the final point. We've seen this team beat quality competition when everyone plays within their roles, cooperating as a cohesive unit. And we've seen this team lose to mediocrity when the opposite unfolds: When Damion James fancies himself a dribbler. Or AJ Abrams fancies himself Allen Iverson. Or Rick Barnes fancies himself sane for letting long scoring runs continue uninterrupted by timeout.. (Seriously, if Rick Barnes finishes either half with timeouts in his pocket, Dexter Pittman should sit on him as punishment.)
Bottom line is that this team is good enough that it can win without everyone having a great game. What it cannot do is win when one or more players play outside their limitations and have an awful game.
Hook 'em Horns. Beat Duke.