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Postgame React: New Mexico State

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And now, for something encouraging: Texas hoops! At this point, we have to sort of hope to switch places with Kansas, right? "Fine, fine - you did great in football. We're just happy hoops season is here!"

Game Recap: Texas jumped out to an early 35-14 lead on New Mexico State and never looked back, maintaining a double-digit lead throughout most of their 102-87 win. AJ Abrams bested his previous career high (set earlier this week) by scoring 31 points, including 9 three pointers, while DJ Augustin directed the rout with 25 points and 10 assists. Connor Atchley (15 points), Damion James (12), and Justin Mason (11) each reached double-digits in scoring as the Longhorns topped the century mark for the second straight game.

After New Mexico State closed Texas' lead to 62-55 early in the second half, Texas put the game away with a 22-4 run. The Aggies hung around with a 14-0 run later in the half, but the outcome was never in question. With the win, Texas improved to 4-0 on the season.

The outcome was: Lovely. This was my first chance to see the Texas hoops team play this year, and damn was the timing sublime. I leapt over the the Versus Network the moment A&M secured the football win, in time to see all but the first five minutes of the basketball game. Texas already led 26-11 and looked the better team throughout. As down as I was about the football team, I desperately needed this pick-me-up.

The Offensive MVP was: AJ Abrams. The quick release is still something to behold, isn't it? Abrams got off 12 three point attempts on the evening, draining 9, a new career best. For the season, AJ has now hit a filthy 22 of his 37 three point attempts. If you're scoring at home, that's 59.5%. Six out of ten, my friends. (And he's not Brandy Perryman!)

Lest we get too excited, I will say this: Longhorn hoops fans would be wise to remember that Abrams started off similarly a season ago. The most challenging teams Texas played last year - largely in-conference - got wise and muscled Abrams around with a tough perimeter defender. Abrams will need to show he's added to his game to be a more well-rounded player during Big 12 play in 2008.

The Defensive MVP was: Justin Mason. Some of this awarding is a bit arbitrary, but it's a nice format for me to talk about the team for the first time this year. In any case, this gives me a chance to note that Justin Mason is on the verge of being a great collegiate basketball player. I'm not sure if it's going to come this year or next, but by the time this kid's a senior, he's going to be Royal Ivey... with cheese.

First of all, a big thumbs up to Todd Wright, who's got Mason and all his teammates looking physically terrific this year. Augustin looks like he might be the Energizer Bunny we're gonna need him to be this season, while Mason just looks infinitely quicker than he did towards the end of his freshman campaign. Mason is moving laterally so much better than a year ago, but still playing like a kid who loves defense. He's tenacious, takes pride in it, and is one of those basketball players that's going to help Rick Barnes as much or more than the guys who get the biggest headlines. As his offensive game comes around, fans will appreciate him more, but he's already real close to being as important as anyone on the team. There's a reason Bob Knight was drooling about this kid.

The Freshman Evaluation tonight was: Thumbs Up. Wangmene plays much bigger than he is - part human, part pterodactyl. He makes Kevin Durant look like a dude with stubby arms, and generally impressed me with his readiness to contribute. Elsewhere, Clint Chapman is not going to be a critical player this season, but he doesn't look lost out there. I felt more comfortable with him on the floor tonight than I think I ever did with Matt Hill a year ago. No action for Gary Johnson, though that should change soon.

Dexter Pittman Watch: 2 minutes, 0 points, 0 rebounds, 2 fouls. Oh, Dexter. He still has such a long way to go, but I remain hopeful. He's worked hard to get into playing shape, but now he's got to learn to use that big frame wisely. We'll keep track of it here.

Five Things I Think: (1) Damion James surprised the living sh*t out of me. I have to say, when I was reading AW's great game reports, or the awesome commentary thereafter from txtwstr, jimmer, and others, I skeptically squinted at the computer as I read about Damion James playing on the wing. "I just... I mean... No."

What I saw last year was a really, really promising athlete who was learning how to be a strong basketball player. He struck me as one of those exceptional athletes who was going to be effective in some capacity because he could jump through the roof, but I didn't know if he was a basketball player. I envisioned him stuck as an undersized four who would succeed because he's athletic, but struggle to be great because he's not big enough to play the post.

But holy hell... he looks smooth out on the wing! He hit a gorgeous fadeaway. His jumper looked very natural. His ball handling has improved dramatically. My God, this looks like it'll work. And we're much better for it. James' potential on the wing is tenfold what it was on the blocks. As a three, he can provide offense all over the court, and still do a great job using his athleticism to give this team rebounding.

(2) My brother was wrong about Connor Atchley. I had a great conversation this with my brother, a very astute sports fan, about Connor Atchley. My brother said he was amused because Atchley receives from the peanut gallery a disproportionate amount of attention relative to his importance on the team. I said I thought he was right that Atchley does get singled out (good or bad) more than a player of his importance generally does, and theorized that it was because when Connor fails, he often does so spectacularly. When he looks bad, he looks bad.

The conversation eventually turned to Brian Boddicker, another player who Texas fans talked about (and blamed) disproportionately, with my brother arguing that Atchley isn't near the player that Boddicker was. He was being a bit hyperbolic, but even as someone who really appreciated Brian Boddicker's contributions (I felt like his lone fan at times), I have to disagree. I loved Boddicker because he was a fighter, would get after the ball when Texas needed energy, and could extend the defense with an underrated jump shot.

And watching Atchley tonight, I saw some of the same things. He's not nearly as physically useful as Boddicker was, but Atchley is rounding into a damn useful player. He's got an improving offensive game, he's clearly worked his ass off on being a good positional defender (something Barnes teaches well), and he's displaying some of that same fearlessness that helped Boddicker succeed as a Longhorn. We're not talking about a star here, but he's not a space-filler like JD Lewis. He's a useful collegiate basketball player. And getting better. I'm very happy.

(One thing I'll note: Atchley doesn't provide this team with much frontcourt bulk, and if there was one thing I  worried about watching tonight, it's the interior defense. Without having seen how ready Johnson is to defend the post, I'm terribly concerned that the Atchley-Wangmene-Chapman-Pittman combo is going to get killed by teams that can bring the beef around the rim.)

(3) The guard-dependency of this team is frightening. I talked with Jimmer tonight about the team, and he assured me that I needed to get excited about Gary Johnson (which I am), but my concern right now is not that Texas doesn't have useful frontcourt players, it's that we're going to be dangerously make-or-break with the health and foul-effectiveness of Augustin and, to a lesser extent, Abrams. As great as Augustin looks out there, I worry what this offense will look like if/when he's hurt and/or in foul trouble. Good coaches last year put the muscle on Texas' guards on the perimeter, stunting our effectiveness. I worry that without Balbay, this team is going to find itself as dependent on Augustin as last year's was on Durant. Abrams is not a point guard and JD Lewis is not an anything. We're going to struggle if DJ's not out on the floor.

(4) This team is much further along than I anticipated. Even with no Gary Johnson yet, this group looks much, much stronger than I had thought possible at this point. Augustin looks like a kid about to play himself into the Top 10 of the NBA Draft. It's clear AJ Abrams has worked hard on his overall game. I barely recognize Damion James. Justin Mason has the hop in his step back and looks poised to break through sometime soon. The freshmen big guys - Wangmene and Chapman - are eager contributors. All told, I was very encouraged by what I saw. The big storyline for this season was supposed to be patience from the fans as the post-Durant group found an identity and steadily improved over the season. It might be time to revise that a little - the improvement over the next four months is inevitable, but the starting point seems to be much further along that I thought possible.

(5) We've absolutely GOT to figure out nicknames for this team. And soon. Texas games will be nationally televised soon, which means another season of chatter in the open threads. BONers from last year will remember the great fun of "Craigory!", "Good Connor!", "Bad Connor!", all the great nicks we had for Durant, and so forth.

We definitely need to start sorting out who's who for this year. For starters, we need to sort out DJ (Augustin) and DJ (Damion James). AJ is AJ, of course, and there's no shortage of fun names for Sexy Dexy. Or Dex-a-trim. But basketball players need nicknames, and it's time to start thinking about this year's group.

Most of all, we need to figure out what to do with the impressive freshman Alexis Wangmene - his name is hard to say and hard to type. Personally, I think that every time Wangmene does something great we ought to type something along these lines:

Everybody Wang Chung tonight!

Join in tomorrow night at 7:00 6:00 p.m. as #16 Texas plays for the Legends championship against #7 Tennessee. The game will be televised on Versus.

--PB--