Texas' season opener against Fresno State wasn't a pretty one to watch, but the Longhorns survived a good learning/adjustments game without paying for it in the loss column and Rick Barnes moved to 13-2 in his season openers at Texas with a 55-53 win over an experienced team Bulldogs coached by former assistant Rodney Terry. Although the Longhorns struggled shooting the ball, good shooting isn't the only path to victory and tonight Texas got there with a strong effort on the boards, outstanding team defense, and a decisive advantage shooting free throws.
Winning With Defense
Heading into this season, it looked like this group of Longhorns had a chance to be a team that racked up wins with excellent defense, and the season opener certainly seemed to validate that optimism. Texas blocked 7 shots and limited the Bulldogs to 21-of-59 shooting on the night (36%) to produce a smothering final defensive stat line that was outstanding in every regard:
The Longhorns contested shots at the rim and held Fresno State to 11-of-40 shooting on jump shots (27%), and did it all without fouling (just 14 total team fouls), a constant problem for last year's team.
But the most interesting thing about the defensive performance we saw on Friday night was Texas' zone defense. Barnes had his team open the game in a 2-3 zone with Felix and McClellan up top, Papapetro and Holmes on the blocks, and Ridley patrolling the middle. They let Fresno State get into the soft spot behind the zone for one easy score, but for the most part Texas was active and effective when in the defense, which it seemed to play for about half the game.
Texas plays at least a little bit of zone throughout the course of most seasons, but what makes this interesting is the timing. When we've discussed Texas playing zone defense in previous seasons, it's typically in the context of a potentially useful way for Texas to mitigate a size disadvantage or hide defensively weak players. And in that context I usually argue against playing zone other than when foul trouble in a given game more or less requires it, for the simple reason that teams that turn to zone defense only when they have to tend not to be any good at playing it.
Zone defense is very simple conceptually, but its margins for error are small and its required rotations must be precise, well-coordinated, and decisive -- all of which require lots of practice, including and especially game experience. You also have to learn how to rebound while playing a zone, which requires an entirely different awareness and reactions to the ball being shot.
It's because of all those particular requirements that my view has always been that a team should either play lots of zone or none at all (other than as necessary to deal with something like dire foul trouble). Learning how to play good zone requires much more than an understanding of its mechanics; players must also develop a feel for how to move and work together -- coordination that only develops with experience over time.
In other words, it's not enough just to have the right players for a good zone; you also have to be committed to practicing and playing a lot of it right from the beginning. Had Rick Barnes decided in mid-December that this roster has all the right parts for a strong zone, it would have been an uphill battle to implement it mid-season and begin playing it effectively . This is something that Barnes has always well understood well, which is why it was significant to see us playing it in our opener. I don't know yet whether we'll play a great zone defense, but I like this group of players for a zone and am glad we're committed to finding out.
McClellan's Monster Half
He's going to be our best player this year, but there's at least a chance he'll be outright special. I still expect that if that happens at some point it will be down the road a ways, but not because it has to be. McClellan could be a dominant player as early as this year. He probably won't be, but he has that potential, and as high as his ceiling is as a college player, he doesn't even need to get all the way there to be an outstanding, All Conference-type player.
As I noted in the comments, one of the primary reasons to think it will take time before the light comes on for McClellan and he puts it all together is the fact that he is not naturally assertive. Being assertive is something that can be learned and developed, but the early efforts can be awkward and choppy, which has been what I've feared we'd see from McClellan as he grew into a much more aggressive and assertive role than comes natural to him. And in the first half, that's exactly the McClellan we appeared to get, as he pulled the trigger three times from beyond the arc but didn't take it to the rim a single time, finishing the half 0-4 from the floor with just 2 points.
Except that's not quite the full story. Texas spent the first twenty minutes against Fresno State attempting to run the flex offense through the low post, with fairly dismal results. (More on that in another post soon.) Rick Barnes apparently didn't like what he saw either, and Texas switched gears in the second half, running the same offensive sets for Sheldon McClellan that Texas ran so often and so well a year ago with J'Covan Brown.
And McClellan absolutely crushed it. In fact, he played it every bit as J'Covan Brown ever did, and Brown had to work harder for it. McClellan just had to put his incredible talents to proper use, and once he did, Fresno State had no answer. His second half line was as brilliant as his first half line was forgettable: Made Layup, 2 FTs, 2 FTs, 2 FTs, Made Layup, Missed Jumper--Offensive Rebound--Made Layup, 2 FTs, 2 FTs, 2 FTs. When it was all said and done, McClellan finished the half 3-5 from the floor and 12-12 from the stripe for 18 points, all of them needed to secure the win.
I was expecting McClellan to be our best player this year, but the way he dominated that second half was impressive in ways that I hadn't imagined we'd see from him -- not this early in the year, anyway. Then again, my whole premise with McClellan is that he's capable -- right now -- of getting whatever shot he wants (and can score it), and that it's just going to be a while before he learns how to act on his ability as often and efficiently as he's capable. Maybe not, though. After what we saw tonight, I think you can't rule out that McClellan might take the leap to special as a sophomore. Exciting.
It's nearing 3:30 AM, a breakfast tailgate is practically around the corner, and I need to get at least a little bit of sleep, so we'll wrap this up with a lightning round, and we'll follow up with expanded thoughts on each over the next few days.
Javan Felix: A very nice debut right in line with what I wrote about him and his game in my season preview. He's a tough, basketball smart, confident, undersized gamer, and he'd be a nightmare to deal with if he were 6-2 instead of 5-10. As is, he's better than he should be, and he helps make those around him better.
Connor Lammert: A lot of UT fans and observers seemed to be very dismissive of Lammert, but I saw a valuable ready-now contributor out there tonight, and will have to revise my projected minutes for him upward. More on him soon, but the player I saw tonight looks like he can be a valuable asset in a lot of different ways. Kid's got great instincts, quick feet, and highly developed basketball skills. Impressive.
Jonathan Holmes: A quick hat tip to Holmes for a brilliant and relentless display of effort and energy, who didn't have much break his way yet scrapped and hustled his way to a team-high 14 rebounds. Great stuff.
Ioannis Papapetrou: I might devote a whole post just to Papi, but for now let me say that I absolutely love the kid. He didn't have a stellar night in terms of production, but he was impressive even when he failed. He's a player that helps you win chips. Love him. Absolutely love him.
Alright, I'm out of time, so we'll stop here and talk about everyone else in the next post.