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Depth, Our Achilles' Heel?

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Is it possible that, no matter good our starters become, our limiting factor will be our bench? Or, in more definitive terms, our lack of a bench? Is depth Texas' Achilles' heel? Coach Barnes has basically asked four of our starters to play entire games since Big 12 play began.

Here are our Big 12 averages through four conference games:

* Kevin Durant: 38.5 min (2nd in the Big 12)
* DJ Augustin: 38.5 min (2nd in the Big 12)
* AJ Abrams: 36.5 min (7th in the Big 12)
* Justin Mason: 35.25 min (15th in the Big 12)
* Damion James: 26.5 min

I'll note that these averages are a little skewed because of the 15 additional minutes played at Oklahoma State. To control for that, let's take a look at the percentage of time each starter has been on the floor during conference play:

* Durant: 88%
* Augustin: 88%
* Abrams: 83%
* Mason: 80.6%
* James: 60.6%

These are no more reassuring than the total minutes. Essentially, four of our starters are on the floor at least 80% of the time, and all five starters are on the floor at least 60% of the time. Keep in mind those numbers would likely be even higher if the Horns hadn't won their first three conferences games by 24, 20, and 11 points respectively.

Now, let's look at our bench minutes/game in Big 12 play:

* Connor Atchley: 18.75 min
* JD Lewis: 12.50 min
* Matt Hill: 6 min
* Craig Winder: 4.5 min
* Dexter Pittman: 1.75 min
* Harrison Smith and Ian Mooney: no action

Atchley is the first guy off the bench and has provided valuable minutes replacing James. Connor still makes the horrible play on occasion, but he also fights hard on the glass and can knock down the open jumper. Lewis is the second guy off the bench. He basically enters when Mason, Augustin, or Abrams need a rest or pick up a second foul in the first half. Barnes turns to Lewis less in the second half.

Hill occasionally sees action in the first half but rarely for more than two or three minutes straight. Winder played 10 minutes at Colorado but only seven minutes in the other three games combined. Barnes seems to like Winder's on-the-ball defense but still only uses him in limited situations.

Pittman remains the big mystery, and many UT fans would like to Big Dex get more playing time. The big problem, though, is that he can't change ends. If Texas is going to play up tempo basketball, as we have tried to for most of this season, he needs to stay on the bench. But if we get into a more half court game, Pittman could become extremely valuable. He has great hands and a soft touch around the basket, but remains prone to foul trouble and is extremely limited with his lateral movement defensively. Pittman's presence would help our post defense, as long as he didn't foul out, and would help with rebounding. However, our offense would probably not operate with the same effectiveness.

Texas is not a great offensive team in the half court. The Horns thrive off fast break points and points off turnovers, and Augustin's ability to push the basketball end-to-end would be severely hampered with Pittman in the game. Likewise, our opponent would be more inclined to push the tempo as well; if Big Dex isn't changing ends quickly, Texas would be playing four on five.

I have held out hope that Big Dex would be able to contribute during conference play, until now. Texas has already completed a quarter of their conference season. Pittman obviously has not shown the ability to play significant minutes in practice. Until he does, Barnes will likely stick with the undersized starting five plus Atchley and Lewis off the bench. The Horns will continue to play up tempo as much as their conditioning will allow, while rebounding as well as possible given their lack of height.

In the final analysis, then, the Horns are seven deep, at best. Atchley is the only reliable post sub and Lewis is the only perimeter sub Barnes trusts. Perhaps we'll see more of Winder at off guard, but I doubt it. Maybe Hill will adjust to the speed of the game and show better defense on screens, but I doubt it. Like it or not, this team will go as far as our starters will take us. Thankfully, this is the most talented starting five ever at Texas. But relying so heavily on our starters is also a scary proposition considering four of the five are freshman who have never endured an entire college season. Will they still have their legs in March? Will foul trouble or a super talented post player doom us in the tourney?

No one knows the answers to these questions but it sure will be fun finding out.

--AW--