Texas Basketball Report 3.3: We're Number One

Thank heavens Texas pulled out Saturday night's game against A&M or I might have missed my window to file this report about the #1 team in the nation. But they did, and I didn't. This is the Texas Basketball Report. They are the #1-ranked team in the country. Let's talk about it while we can. Texas takes on Kansas State on Monday night at 8 p.m. CT (ESPN).

We're not going to pick up on the format left off in TBR 3.2 (grading out the starters), largely because writing time is limited and compiling parts of that format were tedious and inefficient. If anyone needs help finding stats or rankings, email me. This week, we're just going to talk, and with no one focused theme. Partly I'll be writing in response to Saturday night's OT win over A&M, and I'll definitely be picking up where we left off with player reviews in the last TBR. The rest will just be a mishmash of thoughts on my mind.

Horns_bullet_mediumNumber 1 ranking. The Texas Longhorns basketball team is ranked #1 in the country for the first time in school history. Spare me the lecture on the worthlessness of mid-season rankings: this is a significant accomplishment. First of all, it is significant for the obvious reason stated above: it's never happened before. We've been playing basketball at this school for a long, long time. Never happened. In fact, pundits typically call something like what Rick Barnes has done a Renaissance, but that metaphor won't fly unless you're referencing Texas' 44-game win streak between 1913-16, when basketball wasn't at all the national competition it would become. Part of the reason we're a football school is because we're good at football.

For the first time, we're good at basketball, too. Not above average good, with tourney appearances 2 out of every 3 years and a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 once or twice a decade. Better than that. Two National Players of the Year (Ford '03 and Durant '07), with a third (Augustin '08) the runner-up (Hansbrough, UNC). If he maintains his current level of play, Damion James might win it, as well.

Rick Barnes has made the tournament every year since arriving in 1998. In that debut season Texas dropped its opening round contest; since then they've advanced to the Round of 32 twice, the Sweet 16 5 times, the Elite Eight 3 times, and the Final Four once. So we're not talking about a level of success that is "nice, relative to expectations." This is nationally elite success. Any list that doesn't include Texas as one of the Top 10 programs in the country right now is bogus.

This is the other reason the 2009-10 team's national #1 ranking is significant: it is a culmination of a decade of success. Yes, they've earned it on the court, but take away the previous success and Texas would be ranked #2 right now. Why? Because Kentucky would be ranked #1. They have pedigree. The thing is, now we do too. And we're ranked #1 in the country because of it.

So don't tell me that this ranking is meaningless. It guarantees nothing, but it is a substantial accomplishment with real significance. Moreover, it has substantial, observable value. We're fond of talking about how TJ Ford put Texas on the map, or how Kevin Durant comes back to Austin to work out with the team, and the value high-recognition players like that have on the program. Well, this #1 ranking has some of that, too. Especially if we keep the ranking a while and stay undefeated, that value will be something you'll see day in and out, as has already begun, whether it's in the lead stories on the splash pages at ESPN.com, or the scrolling tickers during sports games ("LEAD: "#1 Texas remains undefeated with win at Iowa State."), or the halftime/nightly studio shows that devote highlights and analyst discussion to Texas and its season.

No, this is not football. That's the point. We're good at basketball. For the time being, the best, at least where rankings are concerned. Enjoy this. Appreciate it. If you've never really bought all the way in, now's the time. We won't win every game, but we win an awful lot these days, and it's exciting, high-quality stuff. You're at the best sports school in the country. Don't waste it.

Horns_bullet_mediumTough week ahead. Finally, before diving into some analysis after the jump, a reminder in case you missed it above that Texas plays Kansas State tonight on ESPN's Big Monday, 8:00 p.m. CT. Brent Musburger is not a good reason to tune in to the telecast, but Bob Knight is. The pair will be calling the game, with Holly Rowe on sideline duties. For terrific K-State coverage, I can't recommend Bring On The Cats enough; their hoops writer BracketCat brings it with quality daily postings. And if you're unfamiliar with Bramlage Coliseum... it'll take about 15 seconds on Monday night before you realize the hornets nest Texas will be playing in. Great arena, great fans.

This coming Saturday, Texas travels to Connecticut, where the Huskies have dropped three in a row (including today to Michigan). UCONN is certainly not lacking in the athletic talent needed to play with Texas. The big problem they're having is that none of their athletes can play basketball. (If there is a dunk statistic, I'd love to see UCONN's numbers. Maybe a quarter of their buckets come on dunks? Half?)

Horns_bullet_mediumHorns benefiting from strong upperclassmen. Unlike in college football, in basketball you're in part measured by how quickly you can get to the NBA. For a while, projected pro stars could skip college altogether. Since the entry-age requirement was raised to 19, many of the best of the best are pro bound after a single year in college. For the most part, it's not thought a good thing for your pro prospects if you're playing college basketball as a senior. Some high-elite guys do it because they choose to (think Tim Duncan, four years at Wake), but overwhelmingly the pressure on players projected to be first-round draftees is enormous.

Texas fans know the reasons well, having to wave sad, grateful good-byes to stars like Ford, Gibson, Aldridge, Durant, and Augustin after one or two years. We always hope they'll stay, but in the end, understand why they don't. For each of those players, it was the right decision, and we don't blame them for doing what they have to do.

If it is unfair to anyone, it is Rick Barnes, who has recruited so incredibly well that if it weren't nonsensical to say so, you could accuse him of doing too well. (And if he were buying players, we might. But it's worth mentioning in passing just how amazingly clean his and the program's record are. The grades are outstanding, there is absolutely zero trouble-making behavior, kids never transfer, etc.) In the long run, Barnes is doing the right thing, a topic I covered in considerable length in a comment thread last March, in response to a criticism of Barnes.

Rather than re-posting it, I'll urge you to go read that comment for a full exposition on this idea, but the general idea is worth bringing up here because one of the central hypotheses of my argument has been on prominent display so far this season: the best of the best teams each year always feature strong upperclass rotations. Last year's UNC team was loaded with excellent juniors and seniors. The KU title team in '07 featured mostly juniors and seniors. And while runners-up Memphis had the great freshman Derrick Rose, he played alongside four upperclassman starters.

Texas has never had that. TJ Ford's early departure cost Rick a title run in 2003-04. Gibson and Aldridge's departures cost him one in 2006-07, when the only senior help Kevin Durant received was from the scrappy bench player Craig Winder (Craigory!). Durant's departure a year later left Texas a game short of the Final Four. Augustin's departure a year later left Texas without a point guard (and we still nearly made the Sweet 16 with a near-upset of Duke). Finally, this year, all the pieces fell into place. Had Damion James left for the pros, we'd be back in the same boat as before, with a loaded freshman class missing the one or two key upperclassmen to help them elevate to the very top.

James came back, as did Pittman, who needed a fourth year in college to improve his weight and stamina to levels where his skills can shine. And there's the rub: you need to recruit well to be the best, but you also need a little luck having some key talent that isn't quite good enough to leave for the pros as after their freshman or sophomore seasons. Imagine this year's Texas team without James, for example. I'd say we still beat UNC, but the Michigan State game likely goes the other way. Ditto Texas A&M, where another upperclassman--Gary Johnson--had his best game of his career, in something of a breakout junior season.

Horns_bullet_mediumDamion James, again. I covered Damion in TBR 3.2, but his senior season is a story that just keeps getting bigger and bigger, with Saturday night's second half and overtime performance immediately vaulting him into that tiny corner of my brain where permanent memory is stored. There's not much I can tell you about my own life in 2007, but I have vivid memories of quite a few basketball games from that year, like Durant's epic first half in Lawrence prior to rolling his ankle. I'll never forget the show AJ Abrams put on in the second half against OU last year in Austin. I can still remember laughing and cheer with Wiggo in the Alamodome in 2003, as we marveled at the Michigan State players who couldn't believe just how quick TJ Ford was, or the passes he was making, sending the Horns to the Final Four.

Damion James is carving out his own spot in my memory bank with his performances this year, none bigger than Saturday night's game-rescuing, undefeated-preserving outburst. I keep saying that I'm just so surprised by this development, but it's not skepticism: I'm just delighted. I've always liked James, and I've certainly appreciated the value he's provided each of the past three seasons, but it simply never occurred to me that he could have a superstar senior season. A very, very good one? Definitely. But this? Not even considered.

What I find especially impressive is the leap forward in James' all-around game. When players try to reconstruct themselves or add something to their game that pros see as a limiting weakness, they typically struggle, if not outright fail. AJ Abrams desperately wanted to show he was a point guard, which ended disastrously against Notre Dame in the first week of the season. Duke's Kyle Singler has badly struggled this year trying to be a more complete player for the pros (although he was great tonight in Duke's win over Wake).

Indeed, even Damion James has been through this, as recently as last year, when his focus on trying to become a wing player was as uncomfortable for him as it often was for the team. Which, again: surprise! Here's Damion, and he's taken a huge leap forward as a senior. What we're seeing right now is James primarily focused on being a strong player around the rim (where few are better), only now with an ability to have the offense run through him, thanks to an emerging mid-range game and a shocking improvement in awareness and decision-making with the ball in his hands. He still can't dribble a lick, but he knows when to catch and shoot (and is making them) and knows when he should be using his outrageous athleticism to get to the rack. (Best example: drive to his left to tie the game at 54 with 3 minutes left, when James' defender was overcrowding him on the perimeter and James went strong left, barely maintained control of his dribble--nearly losing it as he turned the corner--but maintaining his position until he was near enough to the rim to put his hops to scoring use. Awesome.)

Horns_bullet_mediumGary Johnson comes into his own.  I'm not shy about reminding people when I'm the conductor of a love parade for a player who pans out as I hoped (see: Houston, Lamarr and Balbay, Dogus). But if you tally 'em up, I'm sad to say the sentences beginning with "I'm happy to be wrong about..." predominate my writing. File Gary Johnson in the latter category, in the same folder with Damion James. I'll be honest: Gary Johnson's game frustrated the hell out of me for a long while. My chilly perception of him began thawing throughout the early portion of the season, when his contributions seemed to fit much better with the team structure, but it's only been in the past couple weeks that I've begun fully shedding my lingering skepticism.

Finally, Saturday night against A&M, I turned a corner. The typical focus on Gary Johnson is on the good energy he's been bringing to the floor, which has manifested itself in a variety of useful ways--solid enough defense and rebounding, improved shot selection, and opportunistic scoring. All those positive contributions began warming me up, but I think we saw something more against A&M (or maybe I for the first time did). The most glaring moment was Johnson taking the ball 90 feet on his own, with perfectly natural looking handles (better than James, that's for sure), and surprising speed and agility. He's not a point guard, but neither was what he did anything you'd expect a power forward to do.

Likewise, his jump shooting from 14-20 feet is a developing asset, with a lot of potential upside and pay off for this year's team (as well as next year's). The change for me is in the focus of my perception on his height limitations as a power forward, to a much more optimistic focus on his quickness and agility as a 3-4 tweener; it won't do much for his prospects as an NBA player, but there's room for him to shine at Texas. Another excellent development for this year's chances to get to Indianapolis.

Horns_bullet_mediumWhat to do with Jordan Hamilton. This is as tough a player problem as I've spent much time thinking about in recent years. On the one hand, his outside stroke can be valuable when he's taking good looks, as we saw against Michigan State. Furthermore, from a raw skills standpoint, his upside is unquestionably high. On the other hand, by the time he takes one step horizontally on defense, the man he's guarding has often taken three, and I don't need to explain that his shot selection for the most part has been abysmal.

So what do you do if you're Barnes? If this Texas team lacked, say, James and Pittman, and needed to improve as much as possible between now and March, the answer is obvious: play Hamilton, play him a lot, and live with all the bad that comes with the good. But what about this year? The answer is still probably that you play Hamilton and play him quite a bit (less when the team is in a dogfight), but see where you stand in March, cutting him out of the post-season rotation if he's not progressed to where you need him to be.

That answer is fine, I suppose, but I'd wager good money that there won't be much pay off in March, because the current contributions are spotty at best, and detrimental at worst. There won't be minutes for him in the tourney if he's taking the floor with his current scoring mindset. The one thing that keeps giving me pause comes each time or two a game when a long body impressive snatches a ball out of the air near the rim and puts it in for a score, and I have to lean in a little for a closer look before I realize it was Hamilton.

And I always think to myself that if I were Jordan Hamilton, I'd worry about being the perimeter scorer I think I can be later, and for purposes of this year, try to re-invent myself as a scorer from 10 feet and in. He's not strong enough to do that against professionals, but he's long enough to do it against college players. There aren't many college guards who have the length to bother his shot if he gets it in close, nor are there many forwards who are quick enough to prevent him from penetrating past them.

I think if I were Rick Barnes, I'd tell Hamilton that he's out of the game the first time he shoots a three pointer. Even if he makes it. The rule lasts for two weeks. Go.

I'd guess he'd start to re-invent his mindset pretty quickly, and I suspect he'd succeed in a way that made him a useful contributor to this year's team.

Horns_bullet_mediumWrap. There is more ground to cover, but I need sleep before a long day tomorrow. I may get to a few more notes before the K-State game tomorrow night; if not, we'll do this again a week from now.

Hook 'em

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