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Righting the Ship: Hoyas and Horns Playing Defense Again

With all the talk of the Rose Bowl, we've been distracted a bit from the basketball team. Andrew's been providing excellent game summaries, but the last time we had an in depth look at the team, I was roundly criticizing the team for its lackluster play against Tennessee. What a difference a couple of weeks makes...

I was reading the morning paper, which included a lengthy game summary of Georgetown's 14 point win at St. John's yesterday, and the similarities in the Hoyas and Longhorns struck me. Both teams had reasonably successful November and December months, but were burdened by lousy half court offense and suffered some frustrating double-digit losses (for Texas, Duke and Tennessee; for Georgetown, Illinois).

Since the Hoyas scored only 58 points in that Illinois loss, they've won seven straight games and scored 70 or more points in six of them. Since Texas got thumped by Tennessee, they've won four straight, with an average margin of victory of 36 points. The wins included a road win over a Top 10 Memphis team and a blowout victory over a Colorado team that returned all five starters from last year (when they swept the Horns in both meetings).

So what happened?

In both cases, the coaches of these two talented teams got back to what they teach best: team defense. Yesterday, when St. John's closed Georgetown's lead down to 55-54, head coach John Thompson III put senior forward Amadou Kilkenny-Diaw in to the game for 7'2" center Roy Hibbert, who was getting routinely burned by St. John's quicker forwards. As he told reporters, he wanted better post defense, and Kilkenny-Diaw is a tremendous post defender. Georgetown went on a 16-0 run and blew out the Red Storm.

Meanwhile, for the Horns, what was concerning us most about the Horns two losses was the uncharacteristic lazy defense. Rick Barnes has never been a good offensive coach, but he's always excelled at getting his teams to play ferocious defense. After Tennessee carved up the Texas defense and blew out the Horns in Austin, we questioned what was going on.

The knock on Rick Barnes has always been his dormant half court offenses, but he's always at least had competitive defenses. This year's team isn't even doing that. This is the most confusing aspect of the recent tailspin. Fortunately, it's much easier to correct than the offense.

What I failed to say was that good team defense leads to improved offense. Forced turnovers create transition baskets. Opponent defenses aren't as easily set off of missed field goals than after made baskets. It's not an accident that the Texas offense has improved since the defense has clamped down.

For both Georgetown and Texas, the keys to their season will be sustaining this defensive intensity through conference play. The Big East is pretty stacked again this year, but there's no reason Georgetown can't be one of the conference's four best teams. The Horns have the most talent of anyone in the Big 12, and if they play defense to their abilities, they should just about run the table in the conference.

The return of Brad Buckman has been instrumental in getting the Horns back to top form, but it's as much for his defense as anything else. If Rick Barnes and John Thompson III continue to get the most out of their teams on the defensive ends, these are going to be two teams you don't want any part of come March.

The Horns play tonight on ESPN at 8:00 p.m. CST against Iowa State in a tough road game.  Last year the Cyclones got the best of the Horns in Austin in an overtime game, 92-80. If Texas plays defense like they are capable, they'll leave Ames victorious. We'll have a more in depth preview of this game later today, but I'll go on record with a prediction of a Texas victory, 81-71.