Texas Longhorns Basketball: Hoops Roundtable, Part 1

Texas basketball returns.

The Texas Longhorns men's basketball team tips off its season tonight against Navy at 8:00 p.m. at the Erwin Center.

The calendar turned to November last week and for the first time in a while there's not much more to say about the football team. Hopefully they'll improve, but the most important events won't arrive until after the season.

For the first time in a while, I suspect a whole lot of Texas fans are actually... ready for hoops.

Usually that doesn't happen until, what, March?

Not so with us, of course. Wiggo and I are hoops junkies through and through, our love for the burnt orange on the hardwood every bit as zealous as the gridiron. The family is a little bit bigger these days and the same is true for Big Roy, the dancing man txtwstr7, and GoHornsGo90.

Hoops season is happily upon us, and it's time for our second annual roundball roundtable.

PB:  Last season was as tough for hoops as is this one for football. After a very promising start, we saw Texas absolutely crumble down the stretch, limp into the tournament, and exit March Madness before the opening weekend.

We've long known Rick Barnes' weaknesses, but never before had we seen him completely just lose a team. But that's what happened last year.

This season, our three best players from last year are gone (Pittman, James, and Bradley) while the two biggest problems back (Hamilton and Brown). What should we expect?

First and foremost, I'll be interested to see whether Barnes has succeeded in getting through to Hamilton and Brown, both of whom were huge attitude problems last year-literally uncoachable, according to one person with whom I talked.

Second, there's no question we're going to be a much worse rebounding and interior defensive team with the loss of James and Pittman, but I think a good case can be made that we'll be better offensively. This is a core of players better suited to Rick's strengths as a coach. Half-court offense based on inside-out play is... well, not.

Third, how good is Cory Joseph? I'm told he's absolutely dazzling people in practices and scrimmages right now, and I can't wait to get my first look in person. Is he good? Or is he great? If he's great, we're very interesting.

Fourth, which big man, if any, takes a step forward this year?  Can Matt Hill be a productive role player? How big does Tristan Thompson play? Has Chapman developed at all? Can Wingman regain some of that promise he flashed before his injury?

And fifth, how consistent can Gary Johnson be for us? This team has a lot of scorers, and we'll need Gary to be an all-around guy for us. Will he rebound? Will he distribute?

I'm sure we'll get to all of these topics, and more, but I'll pass to you Wiggo. I raised a number of questions, but pick one, and enlighten us.

 

Wiggo:  First, let me say that I am, of course, ecstatic that basketball season is almost here, and I do predict that more UT fans are will be paying attention to basketball in November and December than normally do. However, let me also caution the casual basketball fan yet big-time UT sports lover, this basketball team is not going to easily erase our football disappointment. In fact, this is a bubble team in my estimation.

In short, our problems will be lack of size, lack of depth, and difficulty guarding. I'm sure we'll get into more of that during this exchange, so let me take a crack at answering the questions about Brown and Hamilton.

At his best, Brown is a dynamic offensive player with a consistent, almost set, jumper and extraordinary vision. At his worst, he plays matador defense, argues with refs behind the play, and tries to make the incredible, instead of the appropriate, pass. Oh yeah, and he and Barnes didn't get along, At all. Even with those limitations, Brown is in my starting backcourt alongside freshman Joseph. The other options at guard are Jai Lucas and Dogus Balbay, and neither do it for me.

In my mind, how long it takes Joseph to adjust to the college game and how much Barnes can get Brown to play within himself and the offense are two huge keys to success this season. They are the only two guards who can score or ever really need to be guarded in the half court.

On to Hamilton. Jordan likely thought he would play just a single year in Austin and would have departed the 40 Acres last spring with Avery Bradley. However, Hamilton is back for another season and will present the biggest, and maybe only, match-up problem for opposing defenses. At a legit 6-7, Jordan is too tall to be handled by most college threes and has too much range and quickness to be handled by college power forwards. Hamilton must learn to play and shoot within the flow of the offense. For as awesome as Hamilton was at Oklahoma State last year, he shot the ‘Horns out of even more games.

If Brown, Hamilton, and Barnes enter this season on the same page, this Texas team has a shot to finish in the top three in the Big 12 and make some noise in March. They'll have enough perimeter offense and maybe just enough depth and rebounding to compete with the big boys. But if Barnes and Hamilton/Brown are still butting heads, then the Shawn Williams, Balbay, Lucas show is going to be as painful as the last few home games.

 

Txtwstr7:  What a difference a year makes.  In one of my favorite facts from last season, our football and basketball teams entered 2010 with undefeated records.  In fact, before the National Championship game against Alabama, they were a combined 27-0.  We're Texas, indeed.  Since then, the two teams have gone a combined 14-15.  And everyone is currently pissed off and reigniting their grumblings over Mack Brown and Rick Barnes.  We're Texas.  Indeed.

Wiggo's closing comment over the potential "Williams, Balbay, Lucas" show necessitates a further discussion of roster depth.  The backcourt depth discussion seems fairly simple to flesh out.  The transfer of Varez Ward, surprising awfulness of Jai Lucas, and well-chronicled limitations of Balbay would seem to give a somewhat longer leash to Cory Joseph and J'Covan Brown.  Well, at least by Rick Barnes standards.  Ultimately, Balbay is Balbay, Lucas is Lucas, and I'll be stunned if the Joseph-Brown backcourt isn't given a legitimate chance to blossom. 

But what I really want to talk about is how the same discussion applies to Tristan Thompson.  While I'm interested in the backcourt dynamics of this team, I'm truly fascinated by how the staff will sift through the flotsam of frontcourt options on the roster in constructing various lineups.  The biggest problem, of course, is the 20.5 feet of mediocrity supplied by Matt Hill, Alexis Wangmene, and Clint Chapman. 

Last year, I really hoped that one of the three would stand out from the group.  I really thought that a healthy and emotionally rejuvenated Wangmene would be that guy.  As it turns out, he wasn't. Neither was Chapman.  Hill is an interesting case.  In the past, and especially at the 2008 Basketball Banquet, Rick Barnes has heaped a ton of praise on Matt Hill.  At that banquet, Barnes said Matt Hill was a "top-7" player before his injury.  For a team that made the Elite Eight.  Of course, that was two years ago, and Hill was bad again last season. I think you're left hoping that Hill and Wangmene can be good-enough role players, but I cant point to any of these guys as "the" candidate to take a big step forward this year.  Which brings me back to Tristan Thompson.

When I start thinking about this team, I keep finding myself fixated on how-and how often-Thompson will be used this year.  If he starts as an undersized center, it allows for the most versatile offensive lineup combinations, albeit ones that could be exposed defensively. And that's another key point here.  With this roster largely composed of high-upside underclassmen and mediocre or limited backups, how often will Rick shun offensive opportunities for perceived defensive stability? 

 

GoBR: I don't think there is any question that incoming freshman Tristan Thompson will have to play as many minutes as he can handle for this team. The Hill/Wangmene/Chapman group won't bring much offensively and Dogus Balbay won't either unless you are of the opinion that his jumpshot is not serviceable. Let's be real here and say that isn't unlikely.

Back to the frontcourt though - Thompson will have to hold down the middle because getting positive minutes from one of the triumvirate of mediocrity will probably be difficult. Besides, playing Gary Johnson at the four gives him an advantage on the perimeter against slower-footed opposing bigs.

The best offensive lineup will include Thompson, Gary Johnson, Jordan Hamilton, Cory Joseph, and J'Covan Brown. As much as Barnes wants to rely on defense every year, he's going to need to lean heavily and this group, and perhaps more importantly, trust them.

The ability to spread the floor with shooters and a mobile big in Thompson who can run the pick and roll should help open up an offense that too often had to deal with teams packing the paint over the last two seasons.

Of course, the scary thought is that Rick Barnes could go in his instinctive direction of playing the group with the best defenders, meaning big minutes for Dogus Balbay, and, say, the offensively-limited Matt Hill. This is where Texas fans rejoice that Justin Mason is no longer an option.

In other words, as much as Barnes may try to hamstring this team by playing good defensive players who contribute little on the offensive end, the construction of his team dictates that at least three shooters will be on the court at any time.

Rebuounding and defense are not going to be strengths of this team, so it will go as far as players like J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton can take it, just like last season. The hope is that unlike last saeason Brown and Hamilton will have matured and benefited from being back in organized basketball for a year - recall that neither one was able to play their senior season of high school basketball --- and that Barnes has learned to trust them.

Definitely still some major questions left unattended. Who is going to replace the rebounding of Damion James and Dexter Pittman, two guys who accounted for 38% of all the boards corralled by the team last season? How will Barnes deal with Brown and Hamilton is they don't get off to good starts? And what exactly will the ‘Horns get from Joseph and Thompson?

 

GoHornsGo90:  Admirable job so far, gentlemen. I think the high expectations killed Barnes, and ultimately the entire team, last season. He tried to over-coach them and he just doesn't have the coaching skill to do that. His best teams have always focused on letting the players shine doing what they do, instead of employing a more disciplined structure that limits the players' abilities and skill sets (Tom Izzo at Michigan State does this more so than any coach in the country).

We saw a pissed-off Rick Barnes trying to get his players to play exactly as he wanted them to, and nobody involved ever seemed to be having a lick of fun (fans included). Now that the expectations are lowered and there are far less pieces to have to fit together, I think this team will at least gel better than last year's unit. And hey, at least you won't have to watch the continued regression of Justin Mason for another season, so that's pleasant!

Speaking of pieces, I'm going to talk about the single most important one on the team this year-Cory Joseph.

Hopefully, Barnes will let him come in and run the point from day one. If I have to go through another miserable year of Doge Balbay not being able to shoot from five feet away or ever convert a layup, I'm going to go gray at the age of 20.

CoJo is a great fit for the Barnes offense, which relies on a PG that can steady the team and make plays without a very *ahem* well-structured offense. He's also a monster in the high pick and roll/pop game, something Barnes has loved forever and guys like D.J. Augustin feasted on. Joseph isn't the fastest guy ever, nor does he have elite handle, so getting him open with a ball screen will be necessary against higher level defenders.

He's got a very good jump shot and is a high IQ player on the court, something we haven't had at the point since D.J. left. Equally as important is he's hard worker in the Avery Bradley mold, another thing Barnes demands from his players that will lead to benching if it's not exuded in spades. I love his defensive intensity and potential on that side of the floor. Similar body type and defensive breakdown to Bradley, though not the same level of freakish athleticism.

While he's no Myck Kabongo, much less T.J. Ford, passing the rock, Joseph knows how to facilitate an offense and should stem the tide of the terrible turnover problems Texas has had the past few seasons.

I think he's got a lot of Chauncey Billups in his game in that he can drain it from all over the court, but he's not going to consistently blow by you on offense or be throwing no-look SportsCenter passes five times a game. He's also never going to be the guy you point the finger at and say, "He's the reason we lost the game." He won't be.

Peter, I want to hear about how you think this team should play strategy-wise on offense and defense this year in order to optimize our personnel...for once.

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