On Monday night, I walked back to my apartment feeling like a broken man. The cheers of the KU fans across an empty Erwin Center were echoing through my head, and my Blackberry kept vibrating with people wanting to kill certain players and fire certain coaches. It was tough--real, real tough--to watch as KU resembled a gigantic anaconda as it suffocated our offense, fanbase, and majority of our team with pressure defense. The hottest crowd in several years was quickly silenced by a 22-0 run that many took as the last gasp of relevance for this Texas team. As the texts kept rolling in, I could only respond with one phrase that I kept copying-and-pasting over and over again--it wasnt supposed to be like this. And it wasn't. This was supposed to be the storybook season that elevated Texas Basketball and Rick Barnes to their rightful status among the fickle UT fanbase and college basketball world. This was supposed to be the season that erased all the painful memories and near-misses caused by early defections to the NBA. This was it. And it wasn't ever supposed to include a 5-4 conference record.
The next few days brought panic and a series of posts and comments accusing the fanbase of both over and underreacting to the events of the past two weeks. Lost in all the vitriol and histrionics, the game against Nebraska largely remained an afterthought, rather than an opportunity to make the necessary adjustments. But that's what happened. And, if you saw it, you probably feel a lot better about this team than you did yesterday.
While I dont profess to know how this Texas team will finish the season, I know that, on this afternoon, they looked like the juggernaut that we expected. More importantly, they looked like the juggernaut in the way we expected. The freshmen got some run, they made some incredible plays, and they lit up the scoreboard as Texas ran an inferior team out of the gym. Many of you will probably fixate on our last-place opponent and write this game off, but I think that would be a mistake. This remains perhaps Texas' most fascinating and complete performance of the season, and, as we'll discuss in the recap, the nature of this victory--rather than the victory itself--remains the key storyline coming out of this game.
After the jump, let's break this down...
In making some notes before tackling this post, I found that Rick Barnes covered several of my points about the first half within one of his postgame quotes:
I told the team at halftime, all you have to do is look two numbers-the assists and turnover ratio. In the first half, we flipped it, moved the ball, got great looks against a team that leads the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense. It is those numbers right there. That is what we have talked about. We have to move the ball, make simple plays. I thought defensively that is where we really set the tone. Our defense was great against a team that really, really executes. Without question, in terms of playing the way that I envision us to play, it was the first day all year that I thought we really played because I thought that everyone that played for the most part did what they did or what they should do and did not try to do things that they can't do.
That quote is a pretty good summation of the first half, but it was even prettier than it sounds...Texas seemed to effortlessly score 55 points against Nebraska during the first half, which was primarily generated from the three freshmen stepping up.
Buoyed by the much ballyhooed change of inserting J'Covan Brown into the starting linep, Texas came out gunning from the opening tip. Jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first two minutes, Texas was pushing the tempo and smothering Nebraska on defense. After a pair of Nebraska free throws, the next sequence squarely demonstrated the dichotomy of J'Covan Brown's game as a PG; after turning the ball over, J'Covan nailed a three on the next possession to put Texas up 10-2. After a smart timeout by Doc Sadler, Nebraska hit three straight shots and some free throws to make it a 15-11 game at the 14:30 mark. From there, the rout was on.
After Barnes subbed in Hamilton for Balbay, Texas started playing some of its best offensive basketball of the season. The floor spacing was better, the ball rotation seemed crisper, and the team was getting fantastic looks against the Nebraska defense. I haven't rewatched the game, but several students in the O-Zone commented about how we were getting much better looks and running much better sets. I dont mean to single out Hamilton as the sole catalyst, but, as we'll discuss later, he played a really good (and complete) game today. In any case, Texas stretched its lead out to 26-12 at the 10:45 mark with a series of dunks and jumpers.
After a quick push by Nebraska to cut the lead to 28-19 at the 8:00 media timeout, Texas went on a 25-8 run to finish out the half. This run included an incredible shooting display by Avery Bradley, who went 5-5 from downtown during the half and threw down a RIDICULOUS alley-oop from J'Covan. In addition to Bradley's 20 points in the half, Texas received a combined 12 points and 7 assists from J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton. These numbers would have been even higher if Hamilton wouldn't have missed some wide-open jumpers and each of them wouldn't have had a couple passes mishandled by unsuspecting teammates.
The second half was a continuation of the carnage, as Texas buried any thoughts of a comeback by pushing their lead out to 67-30 coming out of the first TV timeout. To me, the second half involved some interesting experiments by Barnes, as he tried out some different lineups. At one point, Texas rolled out Brown-Bradley-Hamilton-James-Pittman, which was the presumed starting lineup for this team back in October. Then, after Dexy got tired, Barnes subbed in Gary Johnson to create a Brown-Bradley-Hamilton-Johnson-James lineup. Another interesting development involved Jai Lucas who, with the exception of some brief stints on the bench, played 13 straight minutes in the second half. Even though he didnt play very well, Lucas wound up playing over 20 minutes for only the second game this season. Following some encouragement from the crowd, Barnes emptied the bench with 4:00 to go, and even subbed in the walk-ons in the last minute.
The outcome was: Cathartic. I'm afraid the basic recap doesn't do justice to what happened today. This was the team we've been waiting to see. They passed the ball, they spread the floor, they had multiple scorers, they played smothering defense, and they absolutely demolished an inferior opponent.
If this was the first Texas game you saw this season, you would have thought the season narrative had gone perfectly according to plan. It's hard to get excited about a team that has just lost 5 of 7 games, but this didnt look anything like the team that lost those 5 games.
Stats of the Game: Every offensive/defensive number from the first half. As part of its most complete performance of the season, Texas brought the wood in the first half. The Horns shot 60% from the field, knocked down 70% of their free throws, and had 12 assists on our first 15 baskets. The team was passing the ball effectively, and it was a lot of fun to watch. As I said earlier, a few missed open jumpers and dropped/mishandled passes prevented those numbers from being even higher. On the flip side, Nebraska shot 8-29 from the field and was constantly harassed by the Texas defense. Just a great performance from a team that many have left for dead.
The Offensive MVP was: Avery Bradley. Even though he cooled off in the second half, Avery Bradley was the primary beneficiary of the better spacing, ball movement, and unselfish passing today. He was wide-open in the corner on several occasions, and he simply knocked down jumper after jumper. Bradley went 9-12 from the field (6-7 from downtown) and scored 25 points in 26 minutes. Bradley only played about 8 minutes in the second half, which was the only thing that prevented him from reaching the 30-point mark today.
The Defensive MVPs were: Team Effort. I dont know if you can point out any one single player as our defensive MVP today. Texas didnt allow any of Nebraska's players to reach double-figures, and they basically shutdown everything the Huskers tried to do offensively. There were still some headscratching mistakes, but everyone fought hard today, especially on the glass.
On the defense of Dogus Balbay: Did you see where we were running our offense? At midcourt. Balbay's good. Do you have to guard him like you do J'Covan Brown? Probably not. But there's more to it. They've got plenty of offensive weapons without the point guard being a focal point. I mean, wow. Balbay disrupts everything that you want to do offensively. I can promise you this, they don't want to lose him. If he goes down then their team is going to suffer. He is that good in my opinion.
We just be Hyperizin' while y'all be criticizin': Youtube? Youtube.
Waaaaaaay back in September, I unveiled the Hyperizers comparison to hype up our incoming freshmen. At the time, it was one of my favorite contributions to BON, since it perfectly encapsulated my excitement about the roster. However, the gist of the post has been largely lost over the last few months, as our freshmen have--as a whole--remained inconsistent and ineffective from game-to-game. It almost seemed like it was a violation of team rules for the three freshmen to play well during the same game. Today, it fit perfectly.
The three freshmen combined for a 53/12/10 line, but the stats dont tell the full story. The freshmen got a lot of time together on the floor, and, in their own ways, they showed exactly why the fanbase was worked up into a tizzy during the offseason. Plain and simple, they hyperized the lineup in opening up the offense and producing some of the most electric plays of the season. The alley-oop from Brown to Bradley will be replayed over-and-over again the next few weeks, but some of the other highlights were more nuanced. There was one series where Hamilton blocked a dunk attempt, Pittman snagged the rebound, then--three seconds later--J'Covan Brown nailed a three in transition. It was awesome.
Speaking of Hamilton, he played perhaps his most complete game as a Longhorn, as he fought hard on defense and showed off his passing abilities in a largely unselfish performance. His shot selection was also perhaps his best of the season. Hamilton went 5-10 from the field, and several of these misses were wide-open jumpers that are the exact type of shots that you want Jordan Hamilton taking. He also drove to the basket on several occasions and willed his way to the free-throw line. It's simplistic, yet really tempting, to point to Hamilton as THE key to the season (which I've done in earlier posts), but, my goodness, he really added another dimension to this team today.
Bottom Line: If the freshmen can build off today's performance--especially Brown and Hamilton--then we're a scary team.
The Dexter Conundrum: Dexter had another one of the "blah" games that has characterized his conference season. He was better at passing out of the double-teams today, but it really might be time to seriously analyze if we're a better team with Dexter on the bench. Dexter has only scored in double-digits in 2 of our 11 conference games, and he's regressed greatly from his 23-15 masterpiece against UNC.
Pittman was on the bench today for the last 12 minutes of the first half, which was essentially the prettiest and smoothest offensive basketball from the team during the conference season. Texas scored 35 points in those 12 minutes and seemed to feel much more comfortable running the offense. With Mason already being put out to pasture, it's tough to consider the same type of minutes regression for Pittman, but it's hard to make an argument that he's been an effective component of our offense over the last five weeks.
Looking Ahead: I can already see a lot of you writing off this post as simply getting overexcited about one game against a terrible opponent. That could be entirely correct. But, as I've said multiple times, this victory isn't as important as the manner in which it was achieved. We got great performances from our highly talented freshmen and simply crushed a conference opponent that recently played well on the road against Kansas. In any case, we'll find out next week if this was a mirage or part of the resurrection of this season.
Texas travels to Columbia on Wednesday night to take on Missouri, before heading to Lubbock for a Saturday tilt against Texas Tech. I can't promise that we'll see the same type of team, performance, or effort that we saw today, but it's nice to know that possibility is on the table.
NEXT GAME: at Missouri -- Wednesday, February 17th 8 pm ESPN2