Texas' 76-55 win over Lamar didn't exactly go according to script, but the Longhorns were good enough in spurts to pull away for the comfortable final margin. Texas enjoyed a pair of 9-point runs in the first half to take a 9 point lead at intermission, then opened up the second half on a 14-4 run to put the game out of reach.
A win is always appreciated, but this was far from a great performance by Texas, who struggled offensively, turned the ball over, and were equally to blame for what was an ugly game to watch. (Not that anyone was there to see it. Tonight's crowd at the Drum was easily the worst of the season, with turnstiles that looked to be about 6,000. Pretty sad.)
((Also sad, and I just have to get this off my chest: whoever is in charge of basketball operations right now needs to be fired immediately. My complaints about the lack of promotion of this team are as old as this blog, but this year they've also managed to make the atmosphere even worse than it already is. For starters, there's the intro "hype" song. One might imagine you'd hear hip hop or something that would fit in on a Jock Jams album. Our intro song is an emo pop-rock monstrosity that only a 15 year old tool from a lame suburb could identify. Like Creed, but whinier. It's mortifying to watch our players as the damn thing is playing. They literally have to stand there, while no one cheers, everyone awkwardly watches the video screen, wonders what in God's name is going on, and the other team visibly snickers. Secondly, there's the new PA guy. Did they hire him away from the Yellow Rose? I'm asking seriously. Third, whatever the reason for letting Eddie Oran have his spot alongside Craig Way, the time is long past to pull the plug. I'll stop there, before I throw my computer out the window in disgust.))
So... back to the game. A few thoughts on the actual contest after the jump.
I'm going to save a lot of my 'meta' thoughts on individual players for Monday's debut of the Texas Basketball Report, but some notes on tonight's game:
- I was really impressed with our defensive approach and execution tonight, which may not have shown through on TV as well as it did at the Drum. As discussed in the preview, Lamar isn't a great offensive team, but they do know what they want to do offensively and we absolutely denied them the privilege, up to the last 5 minutes, when the outcome was secure and we got a little complacent. That was one of my big takeaways from the game, so it was interesting to hear Rick say during the post-game interview that the team spent the three practices after Rice working on nothing but defense. There's a tendency to focus analysis on offense, for obvious reasons, but the most pleasant surprise about Texas' early season is how solidly this team is playing on defense. We're not dominant, but we're very good, in an area that we were concerned could be a huge problem heading into the season. A great sign. We play solid team defense, and vastly improved off-ball defense. It's important, because...
- We are going to see lots and lots of zone this year, and our offense still struggles with it. Pity for Rick, but all the work he did in the offseason involved installing an offense that is designed to operate against man-to-man defense. And the scouting report against Texas right now couldn't be clearer: play zone. The bad news is that we're a long way from being effective against zone. (Hence, the delight that we're better defensively than I thought we'd be.) The good news? Personnel-wise, we can be a zone-busting team offensively. Whether it's realistic to expect Rick to work through that in-season is one thing, but there are reasons to be optimistic that we're going to steadily improve. More on that in Monday's TBR.
- We saw Tristan Thompson break out in New York City, and we're now seeing Cory Joseph break out during the current home stand. The best is yet to come, and though he doesn't have the potential to be as high-impact a player as, say, Jordan Hamilton, he very much does have the potential to be a highly effective, and highly valuable, guard. Outside Hamilton, he had the best game of anyone else. I was worried about him in the first few games, but as he grows more comfortable, and starts thinking less, his value is rising (quickly) to the surface. He's already an important asset, and is probably the biggest reason to feel good about the ability of this team to grow and improve.
- I was pretty put off by our approach offensively tonight, mainly because it seemed like we hadn't spent a minute on preparing to attack Lamar, whose weaknesses were crystal clear coming in. As it turns out, we actually kind of hadn't, and I was glad to catch Rick's post-game comments about this week's practices, as it explained a lot. My take in the aftermath is that Rick had an agenda for this week, and it had nothing at all to do with the opponent. Whether that's a good idea or not is perhaps debatable, but it assuages my concern that he didn't know how to go after Lamar. I'm genuinely convinced he just wasn't particularly interested in dominating Lamar. He had an agenda -- defense -- and that was what he was going to do. We succeeded in that regard, and I'm comfortable with that. And as noted, pleased with the results in that regard.
- Huge hat tip to Jordan Hamilton, who was the best that I've seen him in a Longhorns uniform tonight. He's had gaudier stat lines, but he did it all tonight, and in more ways than are reflected in the final box score. I counted one bad shot all night, and the rest was gravy. He scored within the offense, and with Joseph was the only player who understood how to attack the zone. That his teammates often bungled the opportunities he created isn't his fault. Moreover, he played the best defense I've seen from him to date, and was fantastic on the boards. Kid has long arms, great timing, and a vastly improved body strength that allows him to hold his position. He looks like an NBA player, and while I don't follow pro hoops closely enough to evaluate his prospects at the next level, he's absolutely going to deserve to be the high draft pick he's shaping up to be. I'm proud of him, both for his performance, and for his attitude 180. Impressive, and he'll reap the rewards for it.
- On the opposite side, it's so clear how much we would benefit from J'Covan Brown's talents right now, but he's just making it so hard for Rick to justify giving him continued minutes. Now, I place the blame with J'Covan, whose body language and attitude are bafflingly bad, but I also am wondering whether Rick needs to change his approach a little bit. Almost like a Last Chance type situation. I'll explain more in the TBR, but my sense is that J'Covan needs to be given an extended Get Out Of Jail Free Card for, say, two whole games, in which Rick says to J'Covan something like, "Okay, here's the deal. I'm not going to punish you for being a dumbass and doing all the sh** I tell you not to do. For two whole games. You'll play the minutes that your talent deserves, and I won't yank you if you blow it. But at the end of those two games, I'm going to evaluate how you handled those 30 minutes per game and look at whether I can trust you going forward. Make the most of it. Or don't. It's up to you." Because watching tonight, it was clear to me that the current approach isn't working, in part because J'Covan is not doing what he's supposed to be doing, but also in part because he can't get in the flow of the game. Rick needs to give him an opportunity to work through it, in extended minutes, or prove, in an extended trial, that he doesn't deserve it. I think it's worth trying, and if anyone's planning to go to Pluckers tomorrow night (or call into the Rick Barnes show), please please please suggest it. I'd love to hear his thoughts on the idea.
- Following up on the previous point, the reason I suspect it might work is because as deeply limited as Jai Lucas is, he manages to produce a little bit just from being in there and doing what he's supposed to do. His limitations were on full display tonight, but he also still managed to score three easy lay ups just from doing things properly and being around to scoop up opportunities. That should be J'Covan, and if he could manage to stay out there long enough, he'd score some of those buckets too, and then... well... maybe a scoring J'Covan starts to play a more reliable J'Covan. And we're much, much more dynamic a team because of it. He's still the best pure basketball player on the team. He may never harness that into the kind of reliability you need at the collegiate team level, but it's definitely worth trying anything and everything to figure it out. He's a bright, supremely talented player.
- Finally, in the event Rick continues to stay away from J'Covan, it's hard to understand why all those minutes are going to Jai over Dogus. Unless Jai is hitting three pointers, which he isn't, there is no rational reason for it. Dogus is the better penetrator, the better rebounder, the better scorer, the (enormously) better defender, etc. And we have the perimeter players to punish teams that just sag in a zone. Dogus can drive and kick to Joseph and Hamilton. While I appreciate that Jai is solid and smart, there's just not much that he can do. At some point, solid and smart is just the guys at the end of the bench who the fans chant for to come in during garbage time. Jai may be a notch above that, but is he good enough to choose over what Balbay offers? I don't see it. Or understand it.
And I'll leave it there for now. This wasn't a fun game to watch, and our turnover woes are a source of concern, but on the whole, this team is a lot of fun to watch develop. We're good, with potential to be very good. I'm pleased with how Rick has developed this team thus far, and I'm anxious to see whether he can start to take off the training wheels a bit.