The Texas Longhorns and Kansas Jayhawks will meet in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Saturday at 5:00 p.m. CT on ESPN.
Kansas rode a pair of 20-point performances from the Morris twins to outscore Colorado 90-83 while Texas rode its bench to overwhelm Texas A&M 70-58, setting up a rematch between the conference's two best teams this season. In the first match up in Lawrence, Texas defeated Kansas 74-63.
Texas 70 Texas A&M 58
As ugly as tonight's semifinal win over Texas A&M often was, I could hardly be more pleased with the win. Mark Turgeon succeeded in creating the grinding style of game that gave his team the best chance to win, and although that certainly had its impact on how the contest unfolded, Texas was not undone. For the first time in three tries, Texas A&M managed to create a game style that forced Texas to work hard for it, but the Longhorns were up for the task.
That's good enough as it is, but even better is that Texas successfully navigated the challenge with atrocious games from Gary Johnson and Alexis Wangmene and a decidedly human effort from Jordan Hamilton, who in the first two match ups with A&M was nigh unstoppable. Tonight Texas did it with superior team rebounding, inspiring play from its bench (Wangmene excluded), and yet another Tristan Thompson Beast Mode performance that makes it that much harder to feel totally confident he'll be back for his sophomore year.
After the jump, a few player notes from tonight's game.
Jordan Hamilton: He was "merely" good, and while Texas can't be its absolute best without Hamilton playing well, that the Horns were able to play well enough to win with Hamilton playing merely good was an encouraging sign, especially in the context of how this game unfolded. I liked most of what we saw from Jordan tonight, but I liked even more what we saw from Texas when he wasn't on the floor. We know we can beat anyone when he's playing well. It wasn't clear we could pick up tough wins without him. He was an important player for us tonight, but we didn't ride him to victory. That's a good sign for where we are as a team.
Gary Johnson: Worst game of his career? Look, Gary's had a fantastic senior season, but it was astounding how terrible he was tonight. I don't want to dwell too much on the negative right now, so all I'll say is that I was glad to see him hit a jumper to close out the game. We need Gary playing well. Settle down... And try a lay up, son. You can't flush it like Tristan. Also, to be fair, after missing 3 of 4 free throws to start the game, Johnson hit 6 straight down the stretch. Great sign. We'll need him tomorrow against the Jayhawks. I'm chalking this up to an outlier performance and moving on.
Cory Joseph: Oh good God he was fantastic tonight. 10 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, brilliant defense, and critical first half offense when we were struggling to get comfortable in a tightly contested game. It's interesting, the most obvious deficiency when Texas has struggled is Hamilton, but not far behind is the play of Cory Joseph. He's been a brilliant freshman for most of this season, but at times he's looked like a freshman, and not coincidentally that's often been when we've lost. He looked rattled by Napier in our loss to UConn, and struggled mightily against the guards of Colorado and K-State. He was his best self tonight, and if you're looking for keys to our NCAA Tournament success, this is right up there with Hamilton scoring and Thompson staying on the floor.
Dogus Balbay: Regular readers of this site know that I'm as big a Balbay fan as you'll find, but Rick has been right not to play him of late. While there's no denying his defensive excellence, he's simply not doing the things that this team needs to get what it wants out of its offensive sets. That's not to say that it couldn't get more from its offense while Dogus is out there, but he's got to do a better job with his time on the floor for that to be the case. He's dribbling too much, without attacking the rim. He's not passing the ball crisply enough to take advantage of what we're setting up. And that's all taking place in the midst of defenses that are basically not guarding him. Frankly, he needs to shoot the ball or sit down. And he's not shooting it.
Tristan Thompson: He was the best player on the floor tonight, and he's the reason Kansas fans should be worried tomorrow. If he misses minutes with foul trouble, Kansas will be fine, but Thompson might be the highest impact player in the conference right now. I stand firm by my prediction that he returns next year, but less and less does that have anything to do with his ability to leave for the pros right now. Good grief, what a horse.
Matt Hill: Let's follow that up with Hill, because he's been dreadful for over a month now, but was a key to our win over Kansas in Lawrence in January. It's hard to pinpoint what's wrong, but he looks tentative again, and he did again throughout his first half minutes tonight, before giving us strong play in the second half. I won't pretend to have an answer here, but will just say that we need him to give us 15 big minutes tomorrow. He needn't score, but he's got to defend and rebound. And most of that's in his head. Get it done, Matt.
Alexis Wangmene: Alternatively, we could get the Wangmene who helped us so much in wins over Carolina and, more recently, Baylor, but at this point it's pretty clear that he's more of a 'bonus' -- a potential boon, but not to be counted on. He was dreadful tonight, and there's no telling which version of him you're going to get on any given night. I'll say this, though: He benefits from refs who let the teams play, and if we get Good Lexi tomorrow we'll be in a lot better shape to pick up a win.
J'Covan Brown: Look, I know his downs are particularly hard to swallow, but as I've been saying since November, the kid's a pure player and to the extent he's got his head in the game, he's a decisive player for us. I'm not telling anyone anything they don't know by this point, and especially not in the context of a match up with Kansas. We won in Lawrence because we got J'Covan's best, and all I'll say right now is that everything we're seeing from him of late portends well for tomorrow.
Jai Lucas: Now with Jai... with Jai I have to say that I'm being proved wrong. We're all being proved wrong. I don't want to oversell what he's capable of, but it's undeniably the case that we didn't think Lucas was going to be able to step up to give us what he has lately. Jai hasn't been great, but he's been useful, which really is to say that he's playing purposefully, and that has made all the difference in the world. He didn't shoot it well tonight, but he played his role precisely as he had to, attacking the defense with a purpose as opposed to merely floating. He made the best pass of the night (a gorgeous entry bounce that led to a Thompson flush), and he's either moving the ball crisply with passes or using an aggressive dribble drive to force the defense to react to him. I shouldn't have to tell you how valuable that alone is. Keep it up, Jai. You can give us 10-15 valuable minutes if you do.
Rick Barnes: I was worried early in the game, but by the end of tonight's game there was a whole lot of credit to be given to Rick Barnes. He substituted out his entire first team early in the game because they weren't playing defense, and while it didn't produce dividends immediately, by game's end it proved clear Rick knew what he was doing. Not only did our defense tighten up after our first teamers got benched early, but early in the second when they were struggling on offense, it was the group of Lucas-Brown-Joseph-Thompson-Hill that got our offense on track. That's not anywhere close to our best offensive line up, but they actually ran offense, and as they did, got the team as a whole on track.
All told, this was a deeply gratifying win. Personally, I think we're locked in to a No. 2 seed even if we lose tomorrow, and with Notre Dame's loss tonight we have an outside shot at a No. 1 seed with a win over Kansas. Ultimately, it doesn't matter all that much (except to the extent that we have a chance at playing in San Antonio), but ultimately, our chances of cutting down nets depend more on us being able to win games like we did tonight.
That's what we didn't see during our little February slump, but what we're seeing now gives us every reason to be hopeful about this team's chances to make a run for Houston.
And that's all that you can ask for.