Previous editions of the Texas Basketball Report can be found here.
Kemba Walker hit a 15 footer with 5 seconds remaining in overtime to lift the No. 8 UConn Huskies to an 82-81 win over the No. 12 Texas Longhorns on Saturday afternoon. Playing in front of an electric capacity crowd at the Drum, Texas and UConn battled back and forth in a thrilling contest that featured 8 ties and 12 lead changes.
With the game tied at 77 in overtime, Texas smothered the Huskies in a brilliant defensive possession that forced Walker to launch a 35-footer as the shot clock struck zero, an incredible one-handed heave that hit nothing but net. Keeping with what was a poorly officiated game throughout, the officials did not waive off the shot in real time, and replays showed that the ball was still in Walker's hand as the shot clock reached zero. Unfortunately for Texas, NCAA rules only allow a review at the end of a half, regulation, or overtime. The release was close enough that it's tough to fault the officials, although live in the stadium, it looked clear that he was a tad late.
Regardless, Walker deserves credit for hitting the shot, and in any case, Texas has only itself to blame for the loss. The Longhorns hit just 14 of 23 free throws, missed an easy transition lay up, and failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities to win the game for themselves. UConn deserves a lot of credit for playing physical, mentally tough, resilient basketball, hanging around long enough for Walker to get going and deliver a victory in a game they probably should have lost.
On the bright side, Saturday's game will be an excellent learning game for these young Longhorns, a point Rick Barnes stressed in his postgame interview. UConn's size and physical play was an excellent final preparation for Big 12 play. After the jump, individual player notes.
J'Covan Brown: He was the best player on the floor for Texas on Saturday, and his performance perfectly illustrated the points I made about him in TBR 4.1. Brown is a two-win player for us, by which I mean his play will be essential to Texas winning two games it otherwise would not, while he's past the point where his play is going to cost Texas a victory. On Saturday Brown delivered 20 points in just 29 minutes, on 7-14 shooting with 2 assists and just 1 turnover. In a game in which Hamilton, Thompson, and Joseph all struggled, Brown anchored Texas and very nearly delivered us a win in a game in which we didn't play very well. I really liked Rick's decision to have him take the final shot in regulation, and would have preferred he be given the second chance in overtime as well.
Jordan Hamilton: Saturday showed why it's not, in my view, such a sure thing that Hamilton turns pro after this year. If he gets a high grade and is ensured to be a Top 15 pick, okay, he's all but gone, but it's clear that he's just at the beginning of the process of polishing his talents and translating them into the kind of consistent production that plays at the NBA level. Hamilton needs to learn how to go left, he needs to get stronger, he needs to keep improving his defense, and he needs to be mentally stronger when the going gets toughest. Hamilton settled for too many jumpers on Saturday, committed numerous mental errors resulting in easy points or extra possessions for UConn, and was visibly frustrated at times by the physical play of the Huskies. He's a terrific talent and his improvement this year has been nothing short of remarkable, but if he wants to be truly great, there's plenty of work yet to do. All you need to know is that Hamilton took 16 shots but only got to the line for 3 free throw attempts, missing 2. He needs to take a cue from his favorite NBA players and look at how much of their production they get at the foul stripe.
Cory Joseph: For the first time since early December, the Canadian played like the true freshman that he is. He was badly bothered by Shabazz Napier's in-your-shorts defense, never got comfortable, and wound up playing tentatively and passively throughout the game. He'll learn and grow from it, so this isn't something to get overly worried about, but it was a stark reminder that the kid is a true freshman. All told, Joseph did well to deliver decent production during a game in which he was so uncomfortable, which bodes well for him going forward.
Dogus Balbay: Balbay delivered 22 minutes of fantastic defense against Kemba Walker, who failed to get anything going offensively until late in the game. Balbay also did a good job of leading Texas in transition and ran an adequate offense from the point. Texas needed scorers on the floor or he would have played more, but Saturday neatly showcased Balbay's value.
Gary Johnson: Johnson was solid offensively and battled well on defense despite being undersized, but we lost the game in part because we could not clear defensive rebounds well enough during a critical ten minute stretch in the second half. Texas needed better work on the boards from Johnson and Thompson, and their inability to get it done was a big reason Texas lost.
Tristan Thompson: Like Joseph, this was a true freshman game for Thompson, who did fine all things considered, but showed his age against the Huskies demanding frontcourt. He needs to improve his upper body strength, which will come with time, but more immediately he's got to figure out how to shoot a free throw. Even 60 percent would be acceptable given his current struggles. Thompson's 1-for-6 from the charity stripe killed Texas, as did his average job on the defensive boards.
Matt Hill: Hill was dreadful for the first five minutes he came in, but at some point got mad and started playing better, eventually giving Texas 23 hard-played minutes and 6 strong rebounds. All other things equal, Texas would prefer not to have to play Hill so much when it needs scoring because Hill is offering very little on that side of the court right now. When he is in the game, I'd actually like to see him be a little more assertive offensively, and think he has more to offer than he seems confident he can deliver. When he's passive, he's giving defenses the same kind of edge that Balbay gives them by not being a shooting threat.
Texas got a couple minutes from Lucas and Wangmene, but nothing worth mentioning. I actually thought Lexi did a solid job when he was in early in the game, but Barnes decided UConn was too big and went big throughout the rest of the game. That was probably the right move, generally, although I think Wangmene's athleticism would have played pretty well against the Huskies.
All told, this was a loss that was heartbreaking to take in, but isn't disturbing on a prospective basis. In the first place, Texas should have won the game. We didn't play a great game, but we were still good enough that we should have won it. I took that away as a positive, given the nature of the mistakes and manner in which we lost.
Second, UConn just scrapped it out in a way that you just have to tip your hat to and move on. They won the game primarily through a ten minute stretch in which they just obliterated Texas on the boards, tightened up their defense, and out-hustled us to pick up some easy buckets in transition. Throw in some help from the officials, a miracle buzzer-beater, and Napier's bank-shot three, and it was their day to win, I suppose. They earned their luck, though. I was really impressed with how hard they played to stay in it and keep competing until they could get some things going their way. Gutty win for Calhoun's kids, and I was very impressed with Napier, especially on defense.
Third, this was a great teaching game for this particular Texas team. Much like what the USC loss did for this group for the remainder of the non-con season, I expect we'll be a better team in Big 12 play because of Saturday's loss to UConn. That was a highly competitive, physical, and tough big time game that will help us grow up. It'd be a devatasting loss to take in the NCAA Tournament, but as a cap on the non-conference season, if you have to lose one, that was the way for it to go down. And I thought Rick's postgame comments reflected his understanding of all the right things this game was and was not, and what it can and should teach his young team.
Texas opens Big 12 play on Tuesday evening in Lubbock against the Red Raiders.