2008-09 Texas Basketball Season Wrap

In what may be my last substantial post for the next six weeks, a smattering of thoughts on the loss to Duke, the season's end, and what's ahead.

Apologies this is late coming, but it's damn difficult to type when Elliot Williams is handchecking you like John Stockton on androstenedione. I'm just sayin'.

Even had the game's final 90 seconds been without officiating controversy, the coaches, players, and fans of both teams should have been disgusted with the officials for their choppy, burdensome, and inconsistent work throughout the contest.

The operative word in the preceding, of course, is 'should'... In reality, it's difficult to imagine Coach K, his players, or Duke fans displeased with any scrum game that winds up defined by endless whistles, to be decided by close calls and free throw shooting.

 

All that said, I'd hardly urge Texas fans to channel their inner Mike Leach in an effort to file this loss in the C's for Conspiracy. The officials ruined the flow of the game and did Texas no favors, but on the list of reasons the 'Horns lost, officiating sits comfortably below a sizable list of factors within their control, including at least the following six:

  1. Damion James' 6 turnovers, including three (literally) inexplicable passes even Matt Stafford would have refrained from attempting.
  2. Dogus Balbay neutering his entire offensive value by tentatively playing to avoid mistakes rather than attacing to create plays.
  3. A total of 9 missed free throws, including 6 in the second half.
  4. The inability of Connor Atchley or Justin Mason to have any positive impact on the game.
  5. Gary Johnson playing with as much self-control and maturity as a three week-old puppy. (Seriously, Todd Wright needs to give him two Xanax prior to every tip.)
  6. The sad ease with which Texas' impotent perimeter shooting, combined with their substandard post-entry strategies, allowed the substantially undersized Blue Devils to limit the impact of Big Sexy.

Safe to say Rick Barnes did not read my game preview, in which I urged Texas (1) to gameplan around limiting Duke's freebie points at the line (concurrently protecting our foul situation), in large part by (2) not trying to pressure Gerald Henderson on ball 22+ feet from the basket. Unfortunately, Barnes went for the perimeter pressure, playing right into Duke's strengths while magnifying Texas' own weaknesses and exposure to fouls. It hurt my basketball soul watching Juston Mason repeatedly try to pressure and contain Henderson at or beyond the three point line, only to be dusted on the dribble time and again -- the end result of each a great look at/near the rim for Henderson or, predictably, free throws.

It was a trifecta of fail: First, in allowing Henderson to fire free as a slasher and playmaker, the strategy helped Duke's only explosive offensive weapon -- who, don't forget, is prone to disappear if not allowed a dribble drive game -- remain an active, engaged focal point of an otherwise pedestrian Duke offense; Second, it paved Henderson's way to higher percentage looks near the basket and at the charity stripe. And third, it led Texas to precisely the foul issues it could least afford. Though I understand what Barnes was hoping to do, the game as it unfolded demonstrated exactly why I thought it was the wrong defensive tactic.

In the end, the final loss was a perfect microcosm of Texas' season story, as the 'Horns managed to encapsulate in one performance each of their various M.O.'s throughout the up-and-down year: They proved themselves perfectly capable of beating a quality team... Though they nearly succeeded on the backs of two standout performances, in the end it wasn't enough to overcome a half dozen forgettable ones... And finally, Texas' own fundamental lapses in execution were fatal in a close game to the final buzzer.

AJ Abrams has had higher scoring games throughout his Texas career, but his all-around excellent play against Duke elevates the performance to or near the top of his greatest games list. As he battled to help keep afloat a stagnant Texas offense not able to get Pittman the ball in post position, each of Abrams' 17 points were hard earned. Elsewhere, on the defensive end his pick pocket of Scheyer at midcourt (one of two steals on the night) was a beautiful, perfectly timed, veteran move. More still, Abrams' 5 rebounds reflected well the effort with which he played for all 40 minutes, while both of his assists were highlight reel, make-you-holler dimes which came at crucial junctures of the game when Texas desperately needed to score. Though we all know that Abrams' poor performances often had the capacity to be especially grating for fans to watch, when all things are considered, there's no question AJ Abrams was a very good, four-year, record-setting player who contributed a lot more to dozens of Longhorns wins than his bad nights did cost the team losses. Maybe best of all, Abrams overcame the unfortunate, self-created string of summer distractions to become a team-oriented leader who made the best of an intensely challenging senior year. Hook 'em.

Ending on a far less satisfying note was the career of Connor Atchley, his final shot in burnt orange -- an uncontested three that missed -- all too fitting a cap for what was a season-long struggle to regain his junior year form. At this point, it'd just be cruel and unfair to speculate what may have gone wrong -- and especially so considering the intensive work Atchley put in as a player, culminating in his surprise development into a critical piece of the '08 Elite Eight team. By all accounts he's a good kid and a ferocious, dedicated worker. And in gratefully saluting Atchley's Texas career by recalling my favorite memory of a play he made, I'm reminded it doesn't seem like all that long ago when he hit that unforgettable three pointer to send Texas to double overtime in Stillwater. Hook 'em.

Though it's tough to get too down on a player who started all 35 games, producing 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in 29.5 minutes per game, it really was discouraging that so many of Damion James' complementary skills (dribbling, perimeter shooting, unforced turnovers, shot selection, situational understanding) continued to linger so far behind his core skill set as a rebounder and 12-feet-and-in scorer. Unfortunately, the persistence of those problems seems as much as anything to be related manifestations of James' incredibly poor basketball instincts & on-court intelligence. Ultimately, if he wants to overcome those deficiencies and have a chance at playing in the NBA, he's going to have to continue working harder than everyone else. James hasn't yet announced whether or not he'll return to work on his game as a senior at Texas.

That was a tough way for Big Sexy to end his breakthrough junior season, but if he spends this offseason working on conditioning and polish as hard as he has in previous ones... by the time Texas tips its first game next November he'll have his very own suffix: Dexter Pittman, Preseason First Team All Big 12. And if anyone's paying proper attention, among those receiving All American attention, as well.

What on Earth are we to make of Varez Ward stepping into the spotlight of a season elimination game? On the downside, it reinforced just how bogged down Texas was trying to run the offense through Balbay with no shooters on the floor. But on the positive side it reinforces one of Varez Ward's greatest strengths as a basketball player, and which I happened to highlight a month ago in the Oklahoma game preview, calling for Ward to be the primary defensive player assigned to Willie Warren:

Instead, I think this is an assignment with WARD, V. painted all over it. He definitely gives up a couple inches and fifteen pounds to Warren, but Ward is like one of those MMA fighters -- as pound-for-pound strong and athletic as they come. More than that, he's absolutely fearless in that way you can't teach a kid. He doesn't mind a physical game/lots of contact, he'll gladly play perimeter D or mix it up in the paint, and he's a full-fledged gamer who -- it's been obvious all season -- seeks out challenges. I want to see him take on this one.

Yup, that still sounds about right to me... For Ward, obviously, but also the point that such a fearless, challenge-seeking mindset is not one easily coached into a player. You either got it or you don't, and though no one should invest in the fool's gold of Ward as the focal point first option of next year's offense, he established himself as a tremendously valuable and versatile asset:

  1. He's a truly top-top-tier athlete.
  2. His on-court instincts are as natural as Damion James' are wholly absent.
  3. He isn't afraid -- of physical play, of a challenge, of pressure, of making a mistake.
  4. Correspondingly, he wants the toughest assignments, the most pressure, etc. Total fearlessness, confidence, and a short memory.
  5. And finally, he's a smooth, natural playmaker. While his too-high 44 turnovers reflect his inexperience, I wish I had a tape of each one so I could point out how many were almost-good ideas that didn't quite work out, but which I appreciated as attempts to make the kinds of plays that you want a player to be able to see developing.

Is it me, or did Dogus Balbay's freshman season mimic the career arc of Connor Athcley? Very little playing time and modest expectations at first, followed by an up-and-down learning/transition period of increased usage, leading to an exciting peak at the three-quarters mark, followed by a truly befuddling letdown at the very end. Weird....

Coincidental oddities aside, Balbay was cruising right along through the end of the regular season before the trouble started in the Big 12 quarterfinals with his five turnovers against the athletic pressure guards of Kansas State. Barnes yanked him and gave Balbay a few earfuls worth of criticism to think about. Though a day later against Baylor Balbay would play well during his 23 minutes of floor time, Barnes still appeared to be keeping him on a short leash, sitting him a full 10:30 minutes during the second half. Whatever the various issues displeasing Barnes, from that point on Balbay's confidence was visibly shaken. He played very tentatively against Minnesota -- like a player trying to avoid mistakes instead of make plays -- then appeared to lose whatever offensive aggressiveness he'd mustered for Duke after missing a point blank lay up.

Though when this season began few were as immediately bullish as I was about about Dogus Balbay, the end of this season made me realize it was possible that at least some of my enthusiasm may have beenparticularized -- tied to what I felt  confident Dogus could do for this year's point guard-less squad. But what about next year, when Jai Lucas -- a nominal point guard with a legitimate scoring game -- arrives? It really depends what kinds of improvements Balbay's capable of developing in one offseason, and if you're of the opinion what we saw this year is more or less what Balbay will be next year, it seems like he'd slide into platoon/role player duties, utilized primarily as an on-ball defensive specialist and/or change of look/rest for Lucas.

That may be the most likely outcome, but even if not it's at least as likely as the more optimistic alternative (towards which I lean): I see as attainable substantial growth in Balbay himself, further magnified thanks to the arrival and impact of his new  teammates. Whereas this year a dribbling Balbay stared down from the top of the key wondering how to attack a glob of defensive bodies all packed in the paint, next year's reinforcements will render completely unviable a similar defensive strategy. That's good news for Balbay, who has yet to encounter a defender he can't laser by on the dribble. Next year, he'll have more space to do just that, the awaiting gob of defensive bodies replaced by an open rim or a dunking Dexter.

And really, if you extend the preceding thought to its logical conclusion, the good news isn't exclusively Balbay's to enjoy. Varez Ward isn't as lightning fast as Dogus with the ball in his hands (no one is), but he's every bit the same ridiculous athlete with more than enough ability and know-how to get to the rim for a score, foul, or dump off. (It'll take a lot better defender than John Scheyer, that much we know.) And moving beyond Ward, not only should the reach of the good news be a boon to every returning Longhorn, but also -- I think it's fair to say -- Rick Barnes.

Eleven years in, Texas hoops junkies are well aware of what Barnes does and doesn't do well (the strengths far outstripping the weaknesses), the reality being he's not the first coach you'd choose to install a halfcourt offense for the personnel he had on hand this past season. Barnes wants to run (and successfully recruits to be able to execute) a fluid offense based on spacing principles, ball screens, and dribble penetration. Without the right personnel capable of capitalizing on the advantages on which the system depends, it's little more than what Jimmy Dykes in 2007-08 (wrongly) disparaged as "a bunch of random ball screens."

Dykes missed the mark because with the right personnel (several versatile, high-caliber offensive players or, if the point guard is elite enough even just one), the "random ball screen offense" is very much a legitimate, effective, and viable offensive system based on sound principles. Not only that, but I'm tempted to argue that the impact on college hoops of the NBA's recently enacted age-limit rule may soon make dribble drive offensive principles (if they aren't already) comparable to spread offensive principles in college football. And if, as most believe, the NBA soon bumps its age limit up again, the stampede of coaches rushing to incorporate dribble drive offenses will come sooner rather than later. And that's one of the biggest reasons I'm quick to call myopic those who criticize Rick Barnes on these grounds. It's completely backwards -- we should be glad he's been an early adopter.

Looking ahead, in case you'd forgotten about Texas' #2-ranked incoming recruiting class, a few links to get you up to speed:

And finally, a housekeeping note: Same as last year, my law exams fall in the same week as the football annual must go off to the press for printing. And like last year, the reality of the insane volume of work in front of me has politely waited for hoops to end before crashing down on me. But here we are, and something's gotta give if it's all gonna get done, so I don't expect to be writing much around here during this mad sprint to the finish. Dimecoverage will be around Mondays and Thursdays, while Big Roy's going to be the main man bringing daily doses of his always-excellent news and analysis. Last but not least -- by all means, please take things into your own hands. Keep the Fan Posts lively and I'll be on the look out for good stuff to bump over to run down the middle column.

Once again, it was a damn fun season -- thanks to all (okay, most) who chose to spend it here with us. Same time and place next year.

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