A warm and grateful good-bye to the three seniors Justin Mason, Dexter Pittman and Damion James, who one last night walked off the Erwin Center floor winners, as Texas defeated Oklahoma 87-76. Whatever else you want to say about them, their careers, this season, anything at all -- they deserved to win one more time on their home floor tonight, and they deserve our gratitude and admiration. They deserved to walk back into the locker room proud of themselves and what they've accomplished. No doubt they did. I'm happy for them.
And I'm happy for this team. Midway through the first half, it really looked like the ship was sunk. We lost track of shooters and failed to execute a defensive game plan against one of the easiest teams in the conference to schematically defend. We helped on dribbles we shouldn't have, left shooters open, and lost track of men off the ball. Bradley picked up two fouls. J'Covan Brown looked lost. Our shot selection nosedived for 5-6 minutes. I honestly wondered if after the game I'd be writing about the most disappointing loss in the Rick Barnes era. Maybe a turning point in the Rick Barnes era.
But the team steadied the ship, closed out the first half well enough and, after a really rough first few minutes of the second half, put things together in as encouraging a manner as we could have hoped for, wearing down the Sooners like it was December 2009. Shall we bullet? Let's bullet:
- Welcome back, J'Covan Brown. It seemed to start when he hit a 23-footer from downtown, and as the game went on, he just got better and better. His stroke -- completely lost for weeks now -- finally returned, as he began shooting it instead of aiming it. And after a couple balls went down, he started to play with genuine confidence -- to trust his game. A bad start and rocky first half gave way to a poised performance throughout the second half, featuring the kinds of shots, drives, and passes that we just can't get from any of our other primary ball handlers. If tonight was first about celebrating the seniors moving on, it was second about the rebirth of J'Covan Brown. At least for one night, playing at home, he looked great again. If it sticks, buckle up.
- Did we forget to salute Jordan Hamilton? Or is he just playing like a senior right now. Maybe Rick has a rationale for bringing him in off the bench, but if so, it should be ceremonial. Kid needs starter minutes, and there's no question about it.
- Dexter Pittman started making quick moves in the post tonight. A great, great sign. If he can be a little quicker and smarter with double teams coming, we're very much alive heading forward. We're a different squad when teams are actively dealing with Sexter.
- I just want to say this about our offense: it starts with the defense. Rick Barnes is never going to send out a beautiful halfcourt offensive team, but his teams have always been effective offensively when they're getting stops. It opens up our transition game, allows our guys to get into a flow, and helps open up the spacing we're not so good at creating ourselves.
- One thing remains clear about this team: when they're on, they're still really damn good. I agree with Bobby Knight (who was excellent tonight, I thought): we'll find out whether this team's got it in them to be something when Texas travels to Baylor on Saturday. Baylor's legit--strong enough that I'm not even sure Texas has to win the game, but if they do lose, the key question will be whether Baylor just played great and made plays, or whether we featured the panoply of self-defeating mistakes that have plagued us for the last two and a half months.
Really, though, I'm watching to see if we're good enough to win it. I'm watching to see if we're able to keep Pittman involved. To see if we handle our business on perimeter defense with the discipline and maturity it takes to slow down Baylor. To see if J'Covan Brown can be a difference-making player when he's on the floor as our point. To see if we finish around the rim, rebound with urgency, and play transition defense like the lives of our first-borns depend on it.
We've been down, but with another home win and a second half that reminds of December, we're not out.
Whether or not it's a good sign of things to come, at least it was a great, great way for James, Pittman, and Mason to end their playing careers in Austin. Congratulations, and thank you.
Next Game: Saturday at Baylor, 3:00 p.m. CST