The good news is that this Texas basketball team continues to prove that it can compete with anybody, home or away. The bad news is that they keep falling just short of the actual win, as was the case once more on Saturday when the Longhorns battled valiantly but fell short at Baylor (19-2, 6-2), losing 76-71 to drop to 13-8 overall, 3-5 in Big 12 play.
Before diving into the game details, a few words on the big picture are in order: Saturday's game was Texas' sixth this season that was decided by six points or less this season, and the Longhorns have lost all six of them. Were Texas in a comfortable position for the NCAA Tournament, it would be much easier to view close losses at K-State and Baylor, and at home against Kansas, as encouraging signs. As is, however, the Longhorns need to bolster their resume, and close losses don't help in that regard; Texas needs wins.
Even so, the Horns are in the midst of the most difficult six-game stretch any team in college basketball will face this year, and heading into this slate most of us thought a 1-5 record was the most likely outcome. If Texas can't win at home on Monday against Missouri, that's exactly what they'll have done, leaving no margin for error across the weaker half of the schedule. By contrast, if the Horns do manage to pick off the Tigers, they would pick up that elusive first win over an elite team and need just 6 more conference wins to get to 10, the magic number to feel safe on Selection Sunday.
To follow up on the point about just how brutal a six-game stretch this is, despite going 1-4 Texas has actually improved in the Ken Pomeroy ratings system, a full seven spots to No. 19. And that intuitively feels right, too: I didn't expect us to be capable of competing down to the wire for wins against K-State, Kansas, and Baylor. So the good news is that this team does appear to be making progress. The bad news, of course, is that we've not been able to make any progress in the win column. Had Texas managed to win any one of those three games, Texas would be in an entirely different situation and the focus of our discussions would be on that progress. Instead, we're stuck on the bubble, hoping for a win against Missouri to provide some much needed momentum and margin for error.
Baylor 76 Texas 71
I wanted to open with that big picture discussion in part because Saturday's loss at Baylor fit the mold of the team's other four conference losses: a forgettable first half, followed by drastically improved play in the second half, with a gutsy rally to close the gap, but running out of fuel at the very end. The only difference was that where we killed ourselves with turnovers in the first three losses, against Baylor it was poor free throw shooting.
- We opened Big 12 play allowing Iowa State to bomb us for 9 first-half three pointers, rallied in the second half, took the lead, and then couldn't quite hold on after J'Covan Brown was lost for the final 15 minutes of the game with an ankle injury.
- Deja vu in Columbia, as the Tigers erupted for 9 first-half three pointers and opened up a 17-point lead. Texas played much better in the second half, rallied to within striking distance, but couldn't quite close the gap.
- An abysmal first-half cost Texas a 15-point deficit against Kansas in Austin, and though Texas roared back in the second half -- even taking a 64-60 lead with 2:20 remaining -- they couldn't finish it off, as the Jayhawks closed the game on an 8-1 run.
So it was again at Baylor, as Texas struggled through the first half, trailing 38-29 at intermission after the Bears scored the final 5 points of the half. Baylor actually extended that lead to 12 with 12:55 remaining in the game, but Texas once again refused to go away, rallying all the way back to tie the game at 54, and trailed 64-60 when Myck Kabongo was fouled as he nailed a three pointer. Kabongo missed the tying free throw, Perry Jones III got an offensive rebound and foul on Baylor's next possession, and Texas trailed by 3, but tied the game yet again with an incredibly difficult three-point shot by J'Covan Brown.
But Texas once more fell short of the breakthrough win. Kabongo missed another free throw, and J'Covan Brown fired a deep, tightly contested three pointer with 22 seconds left, gunning for the tie despite Rick Barnes' instruction that he take it to the rim for two (or a foul). Barnes sounded weary in his post-game interview, and understandably so. Texas' head coach has done a fantastic job of in-game coaching this year, and gotten results when his players actually begin doing what he's drilling them to do. At the same time, though, these same players struggle mightily to open the game doing what Barnes has been drilling them for three days to do. It's not like Barnes isn't preparing the team for the match up, and having to scramble mid-stream to figure out a game plan; he's just getting his players to start doing what they were supposed to be doing all along.
Undoubtedly, some will interpret this as Barnes' fault, but I'm actually quite sympathetic towards Barnes on this one. There's only so much a coach can do, and while there are plenty of legitimate deficiencies that Barnes can improve upon, he can't make Sheldon McClellan play adequate defense. He can do all the defensive coaching in the world, but at the end of the day it's up to McClellan to get his head on straight, be alert, and move his feet. Just like it's up to Myck Kabongo and Clint Chapman to avoid dumb fouls that put him on the bench early in the game. And like it's up to J'Covan Brown to do what Barnes talked about in the timeout, rather than force a three.
Texas isn't losing these games because we're getting out-coached, or because our players can't or won't do the things they need to in order to win -- we know that they can and they will, because they do so after they've completely lost their minds and dug a huge hole. That's what's frustrating Rick Barnes right now, and I'm with him. There's only so much the coach can do; at some point, the players have to step up and execute.
Speaking of which, let's talk a few individual notes:
J'Covan Brown -- 40 minutes, 32 points (11-22, 4-10 3PFG, 6-8 FTs), 1 rebound, 5 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 steal
Brown delivered another J'epic performance: pouring in points, setting up teammates, drawing fouls, and leading this young team back from a double-digit road deficit against a Top 10 team. Unfortunately, Brown's poor first-half shot selection contributed to that large deficit, and it wasn't until he started doing what Barnes wanted him to and attacked the gaps in Baylor's zone that he started to find success -- first at the line, and then from beyond the arc as the floor opened up. Regardless, JCB played all 40 minutes and turned in another gutty, memorable effort. Unfortunately, their star (Perry Jones III) was just as brilliant.
Myck Kabongo -- 21 minutes, 12 points (3-7, 2-2 3PFG, 4-8 FTs), 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 turnover, 1 block, 1 steal
Kabongo's performance epitomized what's driving Barnes mad right now. The freshman point guard picked up too dumb fouls in the opening minutes of the game, and had to sit for most of the first half. In the second half? He was terrific at times, playing with a confidence that's often been lacking this year. And he missed four of his eight free throws, which he desperately to fix this offseason -- or sooner, he's plenty capable of hitting 75%. The team as a whole picked a terrible day to go cold from the line, making just 16 of 26 free throws, while Baylor made 27 of 34. There's your difference in the ballgame.
Julien Lewis -- 35 minutes, 6 points (3-9, 0-6 3PFG), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 4 steals
On the bright side, Lewis played strong defense, was active helping on the glass, and made a couple of clutch buckets down the stretch of the second half. On the downside, his offensive ceiling is a fraction of that of Sheldon McClellan, and this team badly needs another scorer. Lewis is just a terribly inefficient offensive player, and although I certainly understand why Barnes isn't playing McClellan more right now, it would be such a huge benefit to this team if McClellan could elevate his play down the stretch.
Clint Chapman -- 13 minutes, 8 points (2-3, 4-4 FTs), 1 rebound, 1 assist
Like Kabongo, Clint got himself benched with two early fouls, and we missed his scoring throughout. There's not much that hasn't been said already here; Chapman's struggles with consistency are well-documented.
Alexis Wangmene -- 29 minutes, 2 points (1-3, 0-2 FTs), 4 rebounds, 2 turnovers, 1 block, 1 steal
Lexi battled hard, but he just doesn't deliver much value, unfortunately. I had higher hopes for him as a rebounder this year, but even there he's just average, at best. One more reason why we can't afford for Chapman to continue fouling himself out of games so quickly.
Sheldon McClellan -- 17 minutes, 2 points (0-4, 0-3 3PFG, 2-2 FTs), 1 assist
After a promising first half against Kansas, McClellan has struggled to stay on the floor, for the simple reason that he's playing terrible defense. I'm not worried about his offensive game -- I still maintain that he's going to be a slow developer, but that whenever the light comes on he's going to explode -- and like what he brings to the table offensively right now, even at this raw stage of his career. But the defensive struggles are incredibly frustrating, because he's far too good an athlete to be playing as sloppy defense as he is. It's a mental challenge, and we need him to solve it soon, because his scoring potential should be more valuable to this team than Lewis's defense. But that requires McClellan to play at least adequate defense...
Jaylen Bond -- 25 minutes, 2 points (1-5), 6 rebounds, 2 steals
Bond continues to give us decent minutes, and though his limitations this season are very apparent (and not going away), his play has caused me to hold a very positive view of his developmental track. Two of his prime strengths -- his athleticism and core strength -- are going to be maximized by Todd Wright, and the third -- his good hands -- is the most important in basketball and the one you can't teach.
Jonathan Holmes -- 18 minutes, 7 points, 2 rebounds, 2 turnovers
I'm also feeling very good about Jonathan Holmes' developmental track. He's better than I anticipated he'd be as a freshman, with core skills that translate very well to the college game. He's substantially more polished and skilled than Bond, and he wouldn't look out of place in a Duke uniform. Also like Bond, however, right now he's limited by his lack of experience, and he isn't quite developed enough to play a bigger role as a true freshman. He's a multi-year keeper, though, and has been our third or fourth most valuable player in his debut season.
Rematch with Missouri
No rest for the weary, as Texas must turn around quickly for a Big Monday showdown with Missouri at the Erwin Center. In the first meeting, the Tigers licked us 84-73 in Columbia behind 8 first-half three pointers and a brilliant performance by Phil Pressey (18 points, 10 assists, 0 turnovers, 2 steals).
Other than two disastrous series spanning 5 minutes of the game during which Missouri outscored Texas 23-2, the Longhorns more than held their own, outpacing the Tigers 71-61. Turnovers are especially deadly against Missouri, allowing them to attack an open floor rather than a set defense, where they're ruthlessly efficient. Texas must take better care of the ball, and we have to do a better job with transition defense. We did a better job in the second half in Columbia and Missouri's three-point shooting dried up; we'll need to make them earn it again on Monday.
More broadly, it's Missouri's outstanding offensive capabilities that make me particularly worry about them as a match up for this Texas team. I like our chances to come out on top of a halfcourt battle with the Tigers, but they do a fantastic job of dictating the terms of a game, to their great benefit. To slow them down you have to take care of the basketball yourself, play strong transition defense off missed shots, and most helpful of all: keep scoring buckets, which is as important to defending Missouri as anything.
If Missouri again succeeds in getting the kind of game they want to play, I don't like our chances, because (1) they're as experienced as we are green, which means trouble for us in the turnover battle, and (2) we're not dynamic enough offensively to win many shootouts. An up tempo, high-scoring affair favors Missouri substantially, and we need to try just as hard to dictate favorable terms for ourselves. Hopefully Rick Barnes watched the tape of K-State's win over Mizzou in Manhattan; that's the kind of game we're looking for, and I wouldn't complain if we scored every single point for the game at the free throw line.
Prediction: For the reasons stated above, Missouri's a worrisome match up for me, but I've been eyeing this game as our breakthrough win for some time now, figuring we'd come out the back side of this stretch a lot better prepared for Missouri than when we opened it. Now that we're here, I think that's largely the case, and if we can just succeed in cutting down our turnovers and defending better in transition, I'm hopeful that this is the big win that's been eluding us. Texas 75 Missouri 71