Not that there could be a good time, but let's face it: losing Dogus Balbay for the year four days before a rematch with
Oklahoma State James Anderson was a kick in the groin. As February draws to a close, it's starting to feel like we're being cruelly punished for crowing about a ten-deep roster in the pre-season, without sacrificing a goat to the basketball god of depth. Our punishment?
Varez Ward: season-ending knee injury in November.
Shawn Williams: season-ending ankle injury in December.
Alexis Wangmene: basketball skill set withheld until February.
Jai Lucas: turned into a (mini) pumpkin on December 15th at midnight.
Dogus Balbay: season-ending knee injury in February.
And that's declining to include Matt Hill and Clint Chapman, because I thought nothing of either of them, but if you did, add their non-development to the list. (And scold yourself for believing either would rebound or defend enough to warrant minutes.) When you further factor in the inconsistent play that has saddled most rotation regulars, Texas has been anything but deep this season. Talented, yes, or it would be hard to fathom how we're 21-6.
Alas, it is what it is and we are where we are, so let's talk about who's who the rest of the way. After the jump, I take a stab at ranking -- in light of the loss of Balbay -- Texas' most important players down the homestretch.
Texas' Most Important Players Down The Stretch
#1 Damion James For all the obvious reasons, plus the fact that it seems to me James represents the single best chance of someone banding this group together and leading them, whether or not their coach is pleased with anything that they're doing. Moreover, he's still the guy we want to be funneling offense through when we need a bucket, as he's still the best option on the team for creating his own look, whether on a rise-up J off a screen or on his own bounce getting to the rim (where few can stop him without fouling). And finally, we're just dead and done for without his rebounding; as much as our offense depends on the "barrage factor" -- limiting turnovers and scoring off second chances -- and our poor team (and transition) defense mean we can't afford to give teams easy second looks, James' presence is just critical, in every regard.
#2 Avery Bradley I don't mean it as a criticism to say that we've had to hit the breaks on the first-year superstar hopes -- by any other standard, AB has been a very, very good freshman contributor -- but his importance to the team the rest of the way just got amplified by several notches. Without Dogus Bably to count on as an occasional offensive contributor and, infinitely more important, highly valuable defensive wizard, the impetus is now on Bradley to elevate his defensive game to become the premier perimeter defender Texas must have the rest of the way. We'll need him to contribute some of the defensive capital we spend to slow down James Anderson, as well as to be the primary defender we use on Donald Sloan (A&M), TMG (Oklahoma), and LaceDarius Dunn (Baylor). As we hope and pray that his fellow freshmen guards give us what we need from them on the offensive end, we'll need for Bradley to be what we know Brown and Hamilton aren't able to be on the defensive end.
#3 Jordan Hamilton Dog him all you like, but if we're talking seriously about Texas winning 3 of the next 4 and being a player in post-season basketball, Hamilton's a key, key ingredient to the mix. Whether he has it in him to start giving us 25-30 consistent minutes of the kind of all-around smart play that we need from him, I don't know -- I don't have to tell you how often he's been wild, but we've seen the good stuff for entire halves, so it's in him. The bottom line, though, is this: not only is every minute of his A-level play tremendously valuable, but we fill a lot of need with his B-level minutes, too. First of all, as poor a job as our "halfcourt offense" does systematically creating looks, and as meager as is our situation with guards creating offense on the dribble, Hamilton's ability to get to the paint and put any shot in or on the rim is far, far more valuable than our fan base often realizes. His length and skill make his shot almost impossible to block if you defend him with a guard, and even when he misses, he's making opponents deal with an offensive attack that puts our garbage men in position to rebound and put-back. That length also allows him to contribute critical rebounding to his unit (7 boards against Tech), which again, is especially important to a Rick Barnes squad. I'll wince alongside you if he's taking long threes in bad situations, but outside obviously bad shots, we need him to be driving and creating and shooting on a consistent basis. A good 10 minutes of A-level ball and 15 minutes of B-level ball would be outstanding for this team; anything above that would be gravy.
#4 J'Covan Brown Whoever's to blame for Brown's place in Rick Barnes' doghouse, we need him the rest of the way. We can take everything else that we discuss in this post and throw most of it right out the window if Justin Mason is running the point for big chunks of the game. We're talking about elevating into something imposing, by maximizing the potential impact of the high-level talent on the roster, and for all the other positive things that Justin Mason is and has been for this program, in this regard he represents a liability. If J'Covan doesn't have it in him to get there this year, then so be it, we don't get there. But it's certain that we can't get there with Mason. I don't know really what else to say.
#5 Gary Johnson It's as much an indictment of the coaching staff as it is of Pittman that we might say Johnson is more important, but the fact is that this team has shown absolutely no ability to operate simultaneously: (1) at a high level, and (2) in a way that is conducive to getting production out of Pittman. More on Big Sexy in a moment, but on Johnson, it's worth saying that even if we do manage to get good stuff from Dexy on a semi-consistent basis the rest of the way, there are going to be games/stretches of games when we're going to need big minutes from Johnson. And by big I mean he needs to play bigger than he is, giving us the defense and rebounding that sometimes kill us with Pittman on the bench.
#6 Dexter Pittman Again, this team has shown no ability to perform in such a way that is conducive to getting a lot out of Dexter Pittman. That's not to say we're not our best when we're getting 20 good minutes from him (we very much are), but given both where this team is and who they probably need to become to be a dangerous team, it's just not clear that the path is a Dexter-centric approach. If Dexter remains in a rut, then we instead need to run, press, have fun, and put our athleticism to productive use, which is why I anticipate how well Johnson is able to give us a viable 25 minutes as a PF is more important than whether we start finding ways to make the most out of Sexter again.
#7 Justin Mason Certainly, if he's going to play, we need to see the kind of on-ball play from Mason that characterized his play in November-December 2008, when he did a more than respectable job penetrating both to get to the rim and distribute the ball to teammates. He was a limited, short-term fix until Dogus got his feet wet, but he was serviceable -- at times good. That's the guy we need if he's going to be playing 20+ minutes a game, because as discussed, anything less than that mostly throws out the window any hope we have of getting the most out of the other guys on the team. Mason actually has the upper body strength to be reasonably effective going towards the rim, and especially if he could combine that with a confident/effective jump shot he'd be someone we could live with for chunks of the game. Mostly, when he's in there he's got to be looking to create offense -- one way or another -- as though he believed himself an equal talent to those around him. He's lacked that confidence for some time now; if Barnes turns to him down the stretch of his senior year, he'd might as go out giving it his best.
#8 Alexis Wangmene Wangmene arguably has been the most disappointing player on the team. Not that I expected much from him offensively, but his lack of lateral quickness, physical play, ability to go up and snatch boards, and general basketball awareness have all been astoundingly lacking. He certainly seems to be capable of more in every one of those regards, and if it's just a matter of playing with the mindset of an athletically capable forward, now would be the time to let loose and get after it. That's the thing: that's all that I really want from Lexi. Just go out there and be an athletic defender and rebounder for 10 minutes.
#9 Jai Lucas Frankly, we need our Top 6 playing well enough for long enough that there aren't many minutes for Wangmene and Lucas, but given Balbay's injury, it's worth at least mentioning Lucas and what we need from him if he's out on the floor. I won't belabor his limitations, of which we're all aware, so let's just say that when he's out there, the one thing that could really, really help this team would be to provide a three point presence that freed the mid-range and interior games of everyone else. If Lucas is providing a credible shooting threat, he's a savvy enough passer to make feed/entry passes to others to be a positive contributor for strategically timed 3-4 minute stretches during games.