Now that I've spent a couple thousand words condemning over-eager Barnes-bashing, let's talk about Texas' atrocious performance in Norman, and the large portion of blame that I place squarely on Rick Barnes' shoulders.
Oklahoma 80 Texas 71
I spent some time in the game preview discussing the importance of denying Oklahoma the fast start on home court that could fuel an upset by the undermanned team. And that was written before we found out that Willie Warren would be available on a limited basis. Naturally, Texas came out and looked lost throughout the entire first half, trailed 20-9 early, and 48-30 by intermission.
The 'Horns showed improved intensity in the second half, did a nice job using a full court press to slow down Tommy Mason-Griffin, and finally got around to exploiting their advantages on the interior, rallying to close enough of the Sooners that the game was very much within reach. Unlike the first half, which was almost entirely a long series of negatives, there was a substantial list of positives in the second half. Unfortunately, there was a substantial list of negatives, as well -- enough to prevent Texas from completing the comeback. Damion James missed 9 out of 13 free throws. (Think about that.) Jordan Hamilton was careful to make sure he matched each positive offensive contribution with a horrible shot that wasted a possession. Texas continued its record-setting pace for most missed lay ups in a single season. And on and on...
There was so much Texas Fail on display in Norman today that it's hard to know where even to start, but after the jump, I've got a few thoughts on everyone involved, starting with Rick Barnes.
Rick Barnes: There was plenty of on-court failure today we can and should set outside the reach of the head coach, but it doesn't begin to exonerate Barnes for his role in today's misery. Of his many faults, unquestionably most disturbing was the lack of any semblance of a game plan for defeating the Sooners. There are times when turning a team loose without an opponent-specific plan is justified, even desirable, but it's inconceivable that today's match up could be thought to be one of them. I was late sitting down to write my game preview and still comfortably outlined the advantages Texas would hold in this game, and the importance of systematically exploiting them. Over at Barking Carnival, Trips right was more timely with his publication, but hardly broke a sweat hitting on the keys to a successful Texas game plan. In other words, everyone seemed to know how Texas should approach Oklahoma except for Rick Barnes.
As damning as was Texas' first half performance, I understand why fans were as frustrated with Barnes as they've ever been -- I was, I am, even as I wave off jumping to any unwarranted conclusions about replacing him. Despite the abundance of match up advantages Texas held on offense in this game, we opened the half going through the motions of the, well, motion-less half court offense we too often run. The extent of our plan to work match ups to our favor were the few concerted attempts to get the ball to Dexter Pittman in the key; everything else was a helter skelter free-for-all. Compounding the problems our approach created for our own offense, the barrage of missed shots and turnovers created numerous opportunities for Oklahoma to run offense in transition, where they rang up the points hitting under-contested shots. All this, while the Sooners were short an injured star.
Related to the failure to game plan is the failure of Barnes to pull this team together in some kind of way as to get more of the potential capabilities of each player. At present, Texas is getting the most out of one or two players per game, and almost never the same player twice in a row. Of late, the team as a whole seems to be running at about 60% of its potential capacity. It's relatively rare to coach a team that consistently plays at 100% capacity, but anything below 80% is fairly characterized as underachieving. The rut Texas is in at the moment is something more sinister than mere underachievement, and you could make the argument that the loss today to a Willie Warren-less Sooners squad was Texas' worst since the first-round loss to Colorado in the 2005 Big XII Tournament.
It's simply impossible to pinpoint the exact nature of the problem without being around the team on a daily basis, but I think it's fair to say that how Rick Barnes succeeds or fails to pull this team together by March will shape Longhorns' fans trust in his ability to make magic without a show-runner at the point.
Damion James: I've hit 100 free throws in a row several times. I can put together a string of 50 straight within an hour every single time. I even beat Brandy Perryman in a free throw shooting contest at his shooting camp. (Too bad that at 6-3 I can barely dunk a tennis ball on a good day. Pathetic.) Point is, unlike when I talk about, say, Lamarr Houston's technique shedding blocks (never have, couldn't if I tried), when I offer comment on Damion's stroke from the line, I'm not talking out my ass.
So clearly, James is suffering from ravaging doubt at the moment, but I just want to focus on the actual form he uses in taking his shot. Shooting free throws is all about rhythm, which has become something of a cliche, except that it's anything but empty of meaning. I've always been a good free throw shooter, but I didn't become automatic until I quit spinning the ball as part of my routine, simplifying to a simple four-step sequence (after aligning the grooves parallel to the ground): bounce, bounce, knee-bend, follow-through. Each of the four steps in equal time behind the previous, with the entire sequence -- from first bounce to follow through -- unfolding in about two and a half seconds.
On my best shooting days, I'm working with a ball retriever who's getting the ball back to me without delay and I'm comfortably replicating my routine more or less down to the tenth of a second. Rhythm is often mentioned in the context of helping a player mentally concentrate, but the biggest benefit that flows from great rhythm is actually to introduce as much separation between your conscious mind and your kinetic motions. Put another way: rhythm triggers mechanical brain function, bypassing the thinking part altogether. You start the routine, the rhythm of the routine is intimately familiar, and it triggers your brain to respond in a consistent way, not unlike a reflex.
Now, to Damion James. His routine has one particular element in it that I generally don't like to see: a brief pause before release. Consider a pause -- even a brief one -- in terms of what we just discussed about rhythm and bypassing conscious thinking. It's particularly difficult to execute a pause without thinking about pausing; by its very nature, a pause is a mental activity -- commanding an absence of action for a duration of time. This is not to say that someone couldn't train themselves into mechanical pausing, but most shooters who include a pause in their sequence engage that step consciously; oftentimes the purpose of the pause is precisely so the shooter can engage a conscious thought of some kind (often a reminder to do something, like follow through completely).
Watching James shoot free throws should be all anyone ever needs to see to forever expel pre-release pausing from free throw shooting routines. For one thing, James struggles to pause for a consistent duration. One free throw is released after a full nearly a full second of pre-release freeze, while the next rests for half that. The briefer his pause, the better his stroke, with his best featuring pauses so brief they're really more of a hitch, which is much more mechanical than a pause of any real duration.
All this said, I'm sure James has well-considered reasons for stroking as he does, and I know he's practicing like hell trying to get right, so it's a little presumptuous for me to play shooting coach at all, but the bottom line is that the dude missed 9 of 13 free throws today. Whatever his reasons for developing the routine that he has, the one thing we know for sure is that we don't want more of the status quo.
Getting into a good free throw rhythm takes on added importance if Texas gets back to doing more of what they did early in the season and in the second half against OU today -- working the offense through Damion and actively setting him up to work one-on-one when (as is the case at least two times out of three) the opponent doesn't have the right athlete to match his athleticism and defend his to-the-rim game. James' 51.7% FTRate is among the tops in the country, so these are obviously both difference-making development down the stretch: whether we take better advantage of James' offensive abilities, and whether he starts hitting more free throws.
Avery Bradley: As dark and ominous as was virtually everything about this game, it would have been easy to overlook the lone bright spot had it not shone so brightly. We won't know its significance for a while yet, but it turns out that Avery Bradley has a breaker switch inside him. I don't know if anyone else noticed it, but AB did not open the game the same player who balled so brilliantly over the game's final 30 minutes. Players get hot and cold within games all the time, but this was different, with different potential significance.
I'm genuinely curious to know if anyone saw this as explicitly as I perceived it to be, but with about 7:30 remaining in the first half, Bradley's demeanor visibly changed, and not in a way that I've seen before. It literally looked to me like a switch in his head got flipped, because the change manifested itself in a systematic way, almost as though he had entered a different mode, like Pac Man after eating a white dot. Except in Bradley's case, the trigger seemed to be Tommy Mason-Griffin's first 12 minutes of play, which were both brilliant (as a spectacle) and embarrassing (for our shocked and bewildered starting guards). As TMG just continued to fill it up, over and over, there arrived a distinct point at which Bradley appeared not to be able to take it any more, and the part of Bradley's brain that governs his competitive drive encountered an experience that triggered a directed response out of him.
You often hear people talk about going into survival mode. For my money, it appeared as though Bradley got switched into challenged mode. You're undoubtedly aware of Bradley's name-making AAU performance against John Wall; I'd bet big that Bradley on that day was playing in the elevated challenged mode I saw him transform into today. Our full court press and ball denial did a lot of work, but the rest of TMG's quiet second half was attributable not to individual defense by Dogus Balbay, who struggled repeatedly with TMG's timing and manner of fakes, but by Avery Bradley, who solved the riddle of cutting off TMG's penetration without ceding the ability to close out on that lightning quick stepback jumper. Offensively, we saw Bradley assume the substantially more assertive, bucket-seeking approach that we've often said we hoped he'd adopt.
All of which raises two series of questions: First, if I'm right about Bradley responding to a challenge, what does it mean going forward? Does it mean that side of him only comes out in the face of great individual performers that inspire him to assert his own excellence? Does it mean the heightened competition of post-season play would be enough to bring it out in him? When it does get triggered, does it expire at the end of a game, or does it linger in him for a while? Could the challenge Texas is facing in its recent slide be enough to bring out the best of AB the rest of the way? Is #1 Kansas enough to provoke it?
Second, if I've read too much into this and Bradley's elevated play was the result of something else, what was it? And is it something that means we should expect to see more of it heading forward? Did he enter into a new performance level tier as a player, or was it a game-specific burst?
Whatever the answers, Bradley's play today was a notable, intriguing, promising bright spot. And one set of potential answers would be the biggest development of the season to date. If it is at all possible to take something positive from today, this is surely it.
It's 3:30 and I'm not feeling an all-nighter, but neither do I see much sense in holding this material until I can get to the remaining players. So we'll stop here, and hopefully get back to the others tomorrow. Not that there's anything good to be said...