Many of us witnessed a second straight meltdown on the hardwood earlier today. Texas has now dropped back to back road games, has wilted away its two game conference lead, and, for the time being, given up any hopes of landing on the No. 1 line in the NCAA tournament. The real question revolves around what to make of the losses to Nebraska and Colorado. Two teams with their backs against the wall who came up big or clear cracks in the Longhorn armor? Minor road blips on the road to the Final Four or a first and second draft blueprint of the ideal takedown of Texas?
From the open threads in each of the two conference losses, there are clearly fans who will vehemently argue each side of the issue. Some might call those who are commenting that the sky is falling, Chicken Littles or reactionaries or pessimists. Some might call those who are easily brushing off the defeats as Barnes defenders or blind or adorning burnt orange glasses.
For the purposes of this piece, let's identify the two sides as Glass Half Full and Glass Half Empty. Even if you already know on which side you are, I encourage you to read the full piece. Understand the other side and then defend yours in the comments. Remember to keep it civil and rationale. With the high emotion of a loss worn off at least some, there is no place for "On a good day, Texas could take down the Lakers" any more than there is room for "This ‘Horns teams is the worst in the history of the university." Neither comment is rationale nor productive.
Now with the ground rules set, let's take a look at both sides of the coin, starting with the negative after the jump.
Glass Half Empty
Defense of Guards: After Alec Burks' performance today, some might say that a pattern has developed. Ashton Gibbs (24 pts, on 8-of-14). Kemba Walker (22 pts on 8-of-27). LaceDarius Dunn (26 pts, on 11-of-26). And now Burks (33 pts, on 10-of-21). When Texas faces an elite guard, that guard goes off and usually affects the outcome of the game. Many believe that to win in March, you must have great guard play. Given that axiom, Texas will run into an opponent in the NCAA tournament with a great guard or two and that will be our exit ramp.
Free Throw Shooting: Before the Colorado game, Texas was shooting a horrific 64.4% as a team from the free throw line, good for 297th in the country (KenPomeroy). After a game stalling, 20-of-34 performance against the Buffaloes, that number will only get worse. Missing free throws is bad enough, but when that inability changes substitution patterns at the end of game, fans should be really worried. In the NCAA tournament, if Texas is holding a three or four point lead in the final minute, can Rick Barnes really afford to keep Dogus Balbay (58%) or Tristan Thompson (48%) on the court? On the offensive side, the strategy is clear-take them out and insert Alexis Wangmene and J'Covan Brown to knock down the free bees. But what about the other side? What if Barnes can't substitute as the ball change ends? How worried are you now about the Texas defense if the best perimeter and best post defender are watching from the sidelines? Free throw shooting has yet to truly cost the ‘Horns a game, but in March, it only takes one.
One-on-one offense: As we slaughtered the Sam Houston States and Coppin States of the college basketball world, the new Texas offense based on the Utah Jazz and UCLA principles looked pretty good. In fact that same offense looked solid as the Longhorns raced to early leads and cruised past Big 12 foes like Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Texas Tech. However, in the face of adversity, this year's Texas offense looks a whole lot more like the 2010-11 Texas offense than it does a true motion, screen, cut, and re-screen one.
Look no further than the last two Saturdays. As Texas yakked up double digit leads in Lincoln and Boulder, Texas was busy reverting to one-on-one basketball. Jordan Hamilton tried to create his own shot or simply stood still on the perimeter waiting for his chance to launch a contested 24 footer. J'Covan Brown took his role as instant offense to a new level with multiple no pass-first shot possessions. Even the calming influence of Cory Joseph looked to create off the dribble instead of run the more efficient inside-out attack through Tristan Thompson. With the talent margin getting smaller in smaller in each advancing round, the chance that Texas trails in a tournament game is near 100%. After what we've seen in the last two losses, Texas doesn't have the patience or trust in their offensive system to keep running their stuff and come from behind.
Inability to play the full 40 minutes: During the 11 game conference winning streak, there were whispers about this as an issue. Now that Texas has dropped two of its last three games, those whispers sound more like premonitions. The Longhorns jumped to double digit leads in so many conference games, particularly home ones, that Texas wasn't forced to focus and execute for a full two halves. Again, as opponents get tougher and tougher, very few games will be won in the first half. Most tournament games, beyond maybe those in the first round. will require two solid halves of basketball. Texas hasn't played a full 40 minutes in weeks, and there is no reason to suspect they get it together any better away from the Erwin Center.
Lack of Depth: Sure the timeouts are longer in the NCAA tournament, and if players aren't in shape by now, they never will be. However, Texas started the season with a slim roster after the move by Avery Bradley to the NBA and the decisions by Varez Ward and Shawn Williams to transfer. Couple those with the plan-for-next-season decision to red-shirt Clint Chapman and Texas was quickly down to just nine scholarship players. Given the limitations of Jai Lucas, some might argue that Barnes is only playing with eight. In Boulder, six players accounted for all the minutes but 13.
Is March going to be any different? Maybe. Alexis Wangmene will be back on Monday but Jai's skill set isn't going to change. Texas will field, at best, eight likely NCAA tournament players. Barnes has two frontcourt subs in Wangmene and Matt Hill and one backcourt sub in J'Covan Brown. That's it. Eight is probably enough on paper but foul trouble and limited abilities should scare Longhorn fans.
Glass Half Full
Tristan Thompson is a Longhorn: TT should be freshman of the year in the conference and first team all Big 12. He is a game changer on both ends. His low block skills create space for Hamilton, Joseph, and Brown on the perimeter for threes or driving angles and open mid-range looks for Johnson. His body control and first and second chance jumping abilities give the Longhorns a legitimate chance on the offensive glass and help mask a still developing offensive scheme.
All that said, his defense makes his an even more valuable ‘Horn. TT's timing and ability to block shots from the help side make the lane a dangerous place for opposing guards. His consistent last line defense also provides opportunities for the Texas guards to pressure the basketball. Pressure creates mistakes, extra possessions, and easy buckets. Pressure also makes feeding the post more difficult. With Thompson on the floor, Texas has a chance to beat anyone in the country.
Can score in a multitude of ways: As shown all season long, Texas can beat you in a number of ways-Hamilton or Joseph from deep, Thompson on the low block, Gary Johnson from the elbow, Dogus Balbay in transition, or even off screens and cuts not previously seen in Texas half court sets. Good teams have the ability to score in at least two ways; great teams can score from three spots.
With J'Covan and Cory, Texas can definitely score from the guard spots. With Hamilton, opponents must focus on taking away the wing too. And with Tristan on the low block, opposing coaches must decide whether or not they must double the post. When all three components show up, Texas is unlikely to lose. And even if just two components are present on a given night, Texas still defeats most opponents.
Lock Down Defense: Throw out the second halves of the Nebraska and Colorado games as anomalies. Texas has been simply outstanding on the defensive end of the floor this season. It starts with the ball pressure of Balbay and extends to the wing where Joseph roams and even into the improved defensive skills of Hamilton. Even if opposing offenses navigate past the perimeter defense, Thompson's long arms and impeccable timing are probably waiting. Those are just a few of the reasons why Texas has been ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency for most of the year.
Unlike last year, Texas is communicated in helping on defense. Opponents rarely enjoy straight line drives to the basket or uncontested jumpers. Given this near constant, NCAA tournament foes better have career nights to move past the ‘Horns.
Ability to Win Away from Home: A lot of teams gaudy home records help mask an inability to win away from home-think Missouri. Texas doesn't have that problem. In fact, the Longhorns most impressive work has been accomplished away from the Erwin Center. Texas owns defeats of Illinois in New York City, North Carolina in Greensboro, Michigan State in East Lansing, Kansas in Lawrence, and Texas A&M in College Station. Few, if any, teams have that many quality wins, let alone quality road wins. Given their road success, winning on a neutral court in March should be cake.
Jordan Hamilton: Jordan is as big a match-up problem as any player in college basketball. Most college teams and future NCAA tournament opponents don't have a 6-6 or 6-7 three man that can stay with Hamilton. If coaches decide to play small, Jordan can easily shoot over defenders. If coaches decide to go big, Jordan has enough ball skills to take slower defenders to the hole, especially by attacking the baseline. While there are a few teams that have someone that can handle Jordan that list is very short and the chances of running into one of those teams and players are small. Therefore, from the opening tip, Texas will likely have an extreme advantage with its best offensive player.
Those are just a few of the arguments why Texas won't make it to the second week of the NCAA tournament and why the Longhorns are destined for an '08 or '03 like run in March.
What say you?
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