What a tough, frustrating loss for Rick Barnes and this young Texas team. After outplaying UCLA for 37 minutes and building a 61-53, the ball started bouncing the Bruins way, the Longhorns fell apart, and just like that the lead evaporated and Texas found itself on the losing end of a game they badly needed to win. The 65-63 loss to UCLA drops the Longhorns' season record to 5-4, and puts the team squarely behind the eight ball, hoping to steal a big non-conference win over North Carolina or Michigan State before Big 12 play begins.
As badly as the team needed this win, this was a tough, frustrating loss for fans as well, but it was also the most encouraging performance we've seen out of this young team this season, and despite the outcome -- and the way the win slipped out of Texas' hands -- I feel a whole lot better than I did heading into the game. It was a total turnaround from what we saw against Georgetown, when I was disappointed in Barnes for his game plan and discouraged by the way our players looked so overmatched. We were loose, we played to win, and we had a sound game plan for UCLA.
I was impressed with the job Barnes did preparing the team for today's game. Our offense against the zone was crisp, and when Howland went to man-to-man, Barnes had his team ready with the kind of tactical move I'd like to see of him more often, identifying Larry Drew's on-ball defense as a weakness that could be exploited and specifically attacking him with Javan Felix. Texas' freshman point guard didn't finish plays quite as well as a taller or more seasoned player would have (hello, Kabongo), but he was getting into the lane at will and had his best overall game of the season until collapsing in the very end with two costly turnovers. (Prior to collapsing at the end, Texas had just 9 turnovers for the game.)
I wrote in my game preview about the need for our players "to get out of their heads and play loose and confident on offense. Simplify, build 'em up, tell them to go play some damn basketball." Unlike on Tuesday night, they came out playing to win this game and even on an afternoon when they weren't shooting the ball well -- and missed two point blank, totally uncontested lay ups -- they were in position to pick up a victory right until the final minutes.
Although this young group still needs to learn how to close out a game -- and the missed lay ups and free throws are just brutal to watch -- today was the first time I felt like I saw where this group is headed, and how they'll be successful. In last week's Texas Basketball Report I noted Cameron Ridley's improvement and suggested that the Longhorns should be getting 10 points and 10 boards from their freshman center by February, but that timeline may be too long. After a solid showing against Georgetown, Ridley racked 14 points and 10 boards across 32 minutes against UCLA, and still stands to benefit more than anyone on the team from Kabongo's return.
In the end, Texas lost because they're young and because they couldn't buy a jump shot. Shooting 4-for-20 from three point range is often a reflection of poor shot selection, but the vast majority of those looks today were wide open; we just couldn't get anything to go down. Add in a couple missed lay ups, shoddy free throw shooting (13-20 on the game), and a disastrous final two minutes, and it's easy to see why Texas left Houston with a loss. But all those reasons are also why it's so encouraging that the Longhorns nearly won the game anyway.
Today's loss was not the result we hoped for, should have had, and badly needed, but while I don't know whether they can progress quickly enough to earn an NCAA Tournament berth this year, today's game showed me that this group can and will be good. As unsettled as things looked after Tuesday night's loss, that's an important step forward.
Next Up: Saturday, December 15th vs Texas State.