By Robert Ferringo
I just finished re-watching the Navy-Texas game from Monday night. It's always good to get that second viewing to really hone in on the specifics of how things are rolling. I know it is only one game, against an inferior opponent, and that it is WAY too early to make any permanent judgments. But here are some snap thoughts about the Longhorns based on what I saw last night and what I've seen from them over the past several years:
- I think that this team is going to have a lot of the same issues that it had last year. That’s to say that this will be a pretty good team this year. They’ll hang around the Top 25, flirt with being in the Big 12 race, make the NCAA Tournament but not survive the opening weekend. I think that’s the ceiling for this team for a variety of reasons. They have the potential and certainly the talent to surprise me. But they have a long way to go - particularly learning to play together - before they can tap that potential.
- First, the most important player on this team is Jordan Hamilton. If he is aggressive on offense – going to the basket to finish, draw fouls, or get tough buckets, as well as working the mid-range game – then he’s going to be tough. And if he attacks the basket he could be an 18-point scorer this year with ease. But if I’m an opposing coach or player I’m sitting back and just daring him to shoot 3-pointers. He may have one game where he goes off from out there but it would actually be the worst thing for him because then he’ll think he can shoot from back there all the time.
- With Balbay, Brown, Joseph and Lucas the Longhorns have four mediocre quasi-point guards. They can be very good, if utilized properly, but they aren't a top tier group by any means. And in a lot of ways Rick Barnes’ mismanagement of his guards (which has been going on for years now) is the perfect example of why he is a great recruiter and an excellent collector of talent but not a great in-game coach.
Here you go Rick, this is what you do: Balbay needs to be your point guard and he needs to play 28-32 minutes per game. He’s a sure ball handler, he is the most adept at setting up the offense, he is your most creative setup man, and he is your most intense defender on a team that sometimes forgets to play defense. I know he seems a little unorthodox and he doesn’t score. But he can give you eight points each night and he more than makes up for it with the other things he does. You don't need a scorer; you need a floor general. That is what has been so obviously missing the last two years. Well, he's the best you got so just go with it.
You need to pair him in the starting lineup with J’Covan Brown. Brown has a chance to be a very consistent perimeter scorer. And if you get him to stop trying to be a point guard and start trying to be primarily a scorer you will get so much more out of him. He is still a smart enough player to draw-and-dish. But you want Brown, like Hamilton, to be aggressive attacking the basket, not worrying about running the show.
The other three starters should be Hamilton at the three, Tristan Thompson at the four and Gary Johnson at the five. (More on the bigs in a minute.)
Corey Joseph should be your first guard off the bench because you can sub him for Balbay or Brown and he can assume either role adeptly. Lucas should be your fourth guard and should be Balbay’s backup. He shouldn’t play more than 10-15 minutes per game (generally) and he should be mostly an “energy guy”. And you don’t want him and Balbay on the floor together too often.
That is the most effective way to rotate the four guards in two spots. And when you need to go with three guards you keep one of your points (Balbay, Lucas) in and then go with the other two (Joseph, Brown) looking to score. It is simple and it is obvious. A huge part of Barnes’ problem last year (and it still is an issue) is that he tries way, way, way too many combinations. No one gets set in their role and this team never has a chance to get in a groove. If he does that with this team they will be mediocre because they don’t have the experience that they have had the last two years.
- As for the big men, in a lot of ways Johnson is kind of the epitome of what is kind of wrong with Texas basketball. You look at the guy and he is a beast. He has size, athleticism, and he has all the standard skills that you want out of a power forward. You look at him and think, “This guy should be a double-double machine and is a pro prospect.” But then you see him play. And there is only one word to sum it up: awkward. The guy has every physical tool but he doesn’t know how to PLAY. He has no feel for the game. It just doesn’t come together. He will have two or three plays that make you think he is going to dominate…then he disappears for eight or nine minutes. Good players don’t do that.
But if you don't watch the game and just look at the boxscore you will see he had his 10-12 points, grabbed his 6-10 rebounds, and blocked a shot or two and think, "Yeah, that guy had a good night." When the reality is that he was really playing and really productive for maybe 10 of his 25 minutes.
- I think that Thompson should start because I think he has the most upside of the big men. You can tell he does have a decent feel for the game and he needs as much experience as you can get him. Especially because he should be back next year with the majority of the talent on this team. So they should be building for next season (not that they are mailing in this year or anything; but they have a much higher ceiling next year if these guys learn to play with one another) and getting him as much burn as possible.
So I would start Thompson and Johnson and then use Hill as that third big man off the bench. You should have two of these guys on the court the majority of the time because that power in the post is still one of your strengths. Unless you go small and go with Johnson in the center, slide Hamilton down to defend the four, and then roll with three guards
- It is still going to be hard to find any value betting on this team. They were one of the worst bets in the country last year (which made them a fantastic "Play Against" team at 10-20 against the spread) and I don't expect a massive jump in their performance at the window. This is still a marquee team and they still garner a ton of hype because of their talent level. Their lines are going to be inflated when they are favored and they won't be catching enough points against more experienced, more cohesive teams that are their physical equal. We can't blindly fade or blindly follow so we'll have to just pick our spots with this team. But if these guys can find their niche they could end up being like Baylor. The Bears were a tremendous bust in 2008-09 and were a money burner. But last year they really settled and were a money maker (18-11 ATS). It would be really tough, but Texas has that potential.
- This is a decent team with some good talent. But, I’m telling you, unless Barnes starts to do a better job of defining roles with these players they are going to be just as awkward and inconsistent as last year’s club. They will get by on talent alone - because they have so much - against weak nonconference teams and then undermanned Big 12 bottom feeders. But against top level teams they are going to struggle because when it gets down to the last five minutes they don't have the confidence that comes with being comfortable with one another. (I know that they are replacing a lot from last year but there are only two new guys. The rest should be more in tune with one another than they are because it's not like they haven't played together for awhile.)
If you read what I wrote here it isn’t as if I’m trying to pigeonhole these guys; I have suggested a lot of flexibility in the lineups. But you can still tell these guys just don’t have the cohesion – yet – that good teams possess. And they won’t be a real threat until they get it.
Robert Ferringo is a writer and a professional sports handicapper for Doc’s Sports (www.docsports.com).