The Texas Longhorns (1-0) opened their season with a convincing and entertaining 83-52 win over the Navy Midshipmen, as part of the 2K Sports Classic. The win is obviously important but it was the little things that I left the Erwin Center most impressed with.
The ‘Horns looked like they were having fun. They played as a team, evidenced by 16 assists, and genuinely looked like they were enjoying the successes of their teammates. There were lots of five fives, pats on the butt, and clapping from the bench. I didn't see one player hang his head after a poor play or when he was called off the floor after a mistake. It is easy to dismiss these positives as "just the first game" or "it's easy to have fun when you're winning." And while both of those things are true, this season appears to have started on the right foot-players appear to like each other and coaches are trusting and rewarding players for effort. After last season's debacle, starting fresh and positive is important, and that is exactly what I saw this evening. We'll obviously keep a close eye on team chemistry as the season rolls on, especially after tough losses.
A few other quick team notes before some player by player observations:
When we did the roundtable among blog authors over the last few days, Texas was clearly going to be a thin team. However, the departure of Shawn Williams really showed tonight. Texas is playing with just ten scholarship players. One of them, Clint Chapman, must be hurt or sick. He warmed up with the team about 20 minutes before the game but didn't participate in warm-ups right before the tip. He sat alone on the bench and didn't play a minute. So, Rick Barnes was down to just nine players.
All nine played but some are clearly limited in what they can do on certain ends of the floor. With Matt Hill and Gary Johnson starting in the front court, that left just Tristan Thompson and Alexis Wangmene are subs. Jordan Hamilton started at the wing, and he no longer has a true small forward back-up. Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph started in the backcourt with J'Covan Brown and Jai Lucas as the only other ball handlers. Not to be dismissive after a single game but we're basically just stealing minutes when Lucas or Hill are on the floor. I think both are going to continue to contribute because playing with only seven or eight guys is going to be really tough.
Texas played man-to-man defense for the full game. This was fine against Navy, but I hope that we're running some zone in practice-because we'll need it. Someone is going to get in foul trouble or Barnes is going to realize that Lucas, Brown, and Hamilton will have difficulty keeping the ball in front of them. Rick Barnes noted in his pre-season press conference that the team hadn't worked on a zone yet. I hope that changes quickly.
Player notes after the jump...
Jordan Hamilton: Jordan was outstanding today. His attitude along with J'Covan's was one of the big questions entering this season. What I saw tonight was fantastic. More than the points that he scored, it was his approach to the game. He made his first three-pointer and the first points of this young season, but then clanked every other deep jumper the rest of the half. Last year, Hamilton would have hung his head and probably sat on the bench after the break. Tonight, he refocused his offensive energy and attacked the basket, especially the baseline, and got out in transition for two impressive dunks. He even found his stroke in second half too. Through one game, Hamilton deserves high marks for effort, attitude, and production.
J'Covan Brown: The other Longhorn that basketball fans entered this season worried about was J'Covan. Again, through one game, no worries at all. Sure, he had a couple of silly early turnovers but settled down and played smart basketball for most of the night. His three second half assists, two to Jordan and one to Thompson, were things of beauty. He clearly has the best vision on the team and will be hugely important as defenses toughen with his range and ball handling.
Gary Johnson: Gary played exactly the type of game I expected. He is still an undersized four who is more comfortable facing the basket but is also one that will battle and hit the glass with energy like he's the underdog trying to make a roster. His jumper looked good too. I have no doubt that he'll be a double digit scorer and will help create space for Thompson on the low block with his range.
Tristan Thompson: I came away more impressed with TT than I thought I would be. Thompson was extremely aggressive offensively and showed decent hands around the rim. However, what most impressed me was that he was talking on the floor, even to his seniors, and ran to Coach Barnes during a few dead balls to tell his coaches what he was seeing on the floor. He is clearly a coachable and talented freshman. Last, his back to the basket game will be the best, and maybe only, on the team.
Cory Joseph: This was Cory's first game and it showed early. He appeared as jumpy as J'Covan was this time last year. His defense and lateral quickness were better than I expected. However, his jumper looked odd to me. Joseph appeared to be pushing the ball more than stroking it, and the ball came off his fingertips high and with almost no rotation. The mechanics looked strange. and I hope that he is a better perimeter shooter than he showed tonight. Overall, though, the talent is there and he'll be fine this season.
Dogus Balbay: I don't love him. And I don't hate him either. Even with two busted knees, he's the best on the ball defender we have. Dogus played hard tonight and, as usual, caused havoc with his pressure defense. I'll never question his defense or his effort-those are both off the charts. My issue is how he'll be defended later in the year against stronger competition. Neither Thompson nor Johnson will be able to do anything in the paint with Dogus's defender sagging ten feet off him. Barnes must make sure that Dogus plays alongside a perimeter threat. At this point, those are Hamilton and Brown and hopefully Joseph when he finds his stride.
Matt Hill: The senior from Nebraska was a surprise starter in game one. Barnes mentioned before the season that Matt was going to be important to what the team does and also shared that Barnes has been impressed with his senior leaders. I get both of those statements to some degree. As a senior, Hill knows what Barnes wants from him. I'm sure that he knows the offensive plays and defensive rotations perfectly too. And I'm sure that given how small and thin this team is, he'll continue to see minutes. That's fine, but let's recognize that Hill is limited on both ends and rarely leaves the floor to shoot or snag a rebound. I'm ok with giving him minutes and he's never going to be the man.
Alexis Wangmene: Wingman wasn't on the floor too much against the Navy. The Midshipmen went small for a lot of the game and Texas countered with two guards and Brown at the small forward spot. For this team to be better than a bubble team, Wingman needs to be productive. He doesn't need to score but he needs to defend, rebound, and block the occasional shot. I have hope that he can blossom into a 15 minute player and the first big off the bench.
Jai Lucas: This pains me as a 5-7 point guard who has played his whole life as the smallest guy on the floor but the game is too big for Jai. To be that small at this level, you better have amazing quickness or athleticism or a Ray Allen-like jumper. Unfortunately, Jai doesn't have any of those things. With only three other guards, get used to seeing Lucas on the floor some. If Barnes can steal 10 minutes of rest for the other three, that will be a win by my standards.
Those are my quick thoughts. PB will be along with his shortly. What were yours?