The Texas Longhorns (3-0) rode Tristan Thompson's breakout party to hold on for a 90-84 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-1). Behind Thompson's 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 blocks, along with 25 points from rejuvenated sophomore Jordan Hamilton, Texas won the most entertaining and well-played basketball game of the young 2010 college basketball season.
Halfway through the second period, it looked like Texas might pull away from Illinois, but the deeper and more experienced Illini hung around, tightened up their defense, and rallied to erase a 9-point Texas lead. But in overtime it was all Texas, as the Longhorns scored the first 8 points of the extra period, then held on for the six point win.
Texas will face No. 4 Pittsburgh in the finals of the 2K Sports Classic championship game tomorrow night.
Texas 90 Illinois 84 (OT)
What a fantastic win for Rick Barnes' young squad. I wouldn't have been upset with a quality loss -- which if they hadn't hung on it would have been -- but to see this group play as they did and pull it together in extra time for the win was utterly fantastic. Before even getting into the nitty gritty, let's just take a moment to celebrate the value of the win, which looks likely to be a fantastic card in Texas' tournament hand at the end of the season. The Big 12 season is going to be a brutal battle, as it always is, and if we find ourselves with a bubble-type conference record, this is the kind of win we'll be able to point back to in making our case for inclusion in the Madness.
But it's much too early for all that. Tonight, let's talk about what we saw from this team, and what it means heading forward.
I was very, very impressed with what we look like at our best, but while that's important, I was even more impressed with our balance and cohesiveness. To get what I mean, think about last year's squad at its best -- probably the show-stopping win against North Carolina in Dallas. That group, at its best, was superior to what this group at its best is likely to be, but we all know that there's more to it than just that, and what we saw tonight from this squad in terms of being effective without being dominant was important.
You could see our guys were pretty gassed about midway through the second half, which was about the time Illinois rallied to erase our 9 point lead. I would have liked to see Rick manage the game a little better at that point, but (1) the way we built that lead was inspiring, and (2) the way we battled through our difficulties bodes well for this team's ability to win a lot of games.
What's neat about watching this team is that all our optimism is so far being validated, insofar as we lack an elite point guard but are operating effectively on offense, in ways that are sustainable without being reliant on a single player to make things happen all by himself. When we got tired, we regressed into some ugly one-on-one offense, and that will be the big challenge this year -- maintaining this fluid level of play, and minimizing the stretches where we play one-on-one basketball -- but tonight was so exciting precisely because there didn't seem to be any reason(s) for this team to sit back on that easy out. We have some excellent individual players, but we don't have anyone who seems to think they should have to -- or want to -- try and do it all on their own.
And that's a good thing. Especially given the make up of this team. I think we're likely to see a lot of different "heroes" in various games throughout this year, insofar as there are several players who can be excellent on a given night, but no player who seems to think it's his sole and exclusive duty to be The Guy, Forever & Always. That's good for team chemistry, for keeping us committed to running meaningful offense, and for maximizing our opportunities against every opponent, when different players and approaches will be better suited to find success on a given night.
This is not a deep team, but I become increasingly convinced of that being a good thing for all involved -- forcing Rick Barnes to be smart and targeted about how players are used, and allowing the players to understand, embrace, and grow into various roles. Our lack of depth will have its costs, but if we recognize that potential weakness and (1) let it further guide the principles by which we deploy our personnel and (2) use it to keep us from drifting out of focus with respect to our need to run offense and work together as a team, then it doesn't have to be a weakness.
I have much more to say about this game and this team, but for now I'll wrap it at this big-picture look and save individual player comments for later. Schedule permitting, I'll go ahead and post individual player notes in the morning, but if not, I'll look forward to doing so in full detail in Monday's debut of the Texas Basketball Report.