Game Recap: Texas led Rice by 18 points at halftime, then buried the Owls for good in the second half after Rice crept back within 10. The 80-54 win was the Longhorns' ninth straight to open the season, marking the best start by a Texas team since 1981-82 when the Longhorns started 14-0.
Damion James had a double-double by halftime, eventually finishing with 18 points and 17 rebounds, his fourth straight double-double. DJ Augustin and AJ Abrams each scored 18 of their own as the 'Horns won by 15 or more points for the eighth time this season.
Rice got back into the game in the second half with a basket and foul to cut the lead to 10 points, but they couldn't convert the attempt to get back within single digits. Texas then went on an 8-0 run highlighted by the offensive play of the game: Leading 62-46, Connor Atchley set a high screen for DJ Augustin near the top of the key. Augustin used the pick, then bounced passed to a rolling Atchley, who was open for a three point attempt. Atchley went up as to shoot, but with Rice players flying towards him, Connor zinged a pass inside to a wide open Damion James for a thunderous dunk that extended the lead back to 18 and put Rice away for good.
The outcome was: Rice was badly outmatched, doesn't shoot well, and can't create much offense if they're not getting to the line (Texas allowed them only 11 free throw attempts, their season low). Despite some cold shooting in the opening of the second half, Texas had firm control of this game from start to finish. The 2007-08 Longhorns aren't messing around with inferior competition, which is a great sign for a team gunning for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Up in Norman, the Sooners dropped a game yesterday to Stephen F. Austin; this Texas team hasn't allowed anyone other than UCLA to stay close with them yet. Let's hope that trend continues.
The Offensive MVP was: / Damion James was absolutely terrific from start to finish, and he's your overall game MVP, but I do feel the need to single out Connor's second half performance last night. In writing a brief halftime recap, I noted that everyone had played well except Connor, who was a little soft on the interior and wasn't getting involved in the flow of the offense much. In the second half, he was brilliant, and I'm not sure I'm being hyperbolic here. He was streaking the court beautifully on the fast break, setting excellent screens in the half court, he hit a pretty three pointer, made a steal, and blocked three shots. If you happen to have taped the game, watch the second half again for a primer on how effective a guy can be just by doing lots of little things the right way. Both Atchley and James are neck and neck for Most Improved Player this season. This Texas team is For Real because of what they've added to the mix.
The Defensive MVP was: More on the team defense in a second, but Mason deserves a shout out here for 35 minutes of 100% effort on defense. Honestly, my two favorite moments of the game came from Mason. As Justin labored through a frustrating night on offense - he missed his first five attempts on the night - he just kept working, working, working on defense. When Rice was hanging around within 12 points of Texas, Mason clamped down on Rice's best scorer, forced a steal, and streaked behind Abrams and Augustin who took the turnover on the fastbreak. Augustin missed a layup but Mason came flying in for a put-back follow. (The box score credits the steal to Abrams, but it was Mason who poked the ball out to Abrams.) A few minutes later, Mason hit a three point shot from the left side to put Texas up 20. His body language after that three pointer was my favorite moment of the game as he clapped his hands together with a smile of relieved satisfaction - I was just happy for the kid for sticking with things through the struggles.
The team defense was pretty solid last night, picking up 9 steals over the course of the game. Two quick things worth mentioning: (1) our full court press doesn't do much in the way of forcing turnovers (the traps just aren't there quickly enough), but it's really effective in disrupting what our opponents can do in setting up their half court offense. (2) The half court defense is light years better than it was a year ago - a tribute, I think, to the superior physical condition of everyone on the team. Can we give Todd Wright a team MVP award so far?
The Freshman Evaluation tonight was: WingMan continues to give Texas solid minutes - last night he picked up 5 points and 4 boards in 12 minutes of action, including a beautiful finish as he was fouled. I also noticed last night that he has a gorgeous free throw stroke - beautiful wrist follow through. Clint Chapman was lost last night. He struggled on defense in the zone, struggled on defense in transition, and wasn't involved on offense when he was in there. Barnes saw it, too, and limited his minutes to five.
Dexter Pittman Watch: Without question, this was Dexter Pittman's best game as a Longhorn. The man doesn't jump well, but by God he doesn't need to. He has long arms, his body necessarily occupies space (so he doesn't need to go up to find room), and he has butter-soft hands. Last night, he put it all together. When he caught the ball in the post, he did exactly what you'd hope him to do: when he had the right position to make a move to shoot, he did. When he wasn't in the right spot for that, he made the right kickout pass. We've talked forever about his conditioning improvement, but last night we saw the basketball game improvement. Though it doesn't show up in the box score, Dexy also tipped about a half-dozen balls coming off the rim, a number of which helped Texas secure the rebound. The best part about Dexy is that he's just moving steadily along up that learning curve, and he's got so much further he can go. I would be thrilled if Texas could get 10-15 minutes of basketball from Dexy like we got last night. When he's doing things the right way, he's an absolute nightmare for the opposition.
Three Things: So said Jerry Palm during CSTV's halftime broadcast last night. And that's the really exciting thing about this season. The 9-0 start is great in and of itself, but it's the level of play in November-December that's really got me jazzed. I think a lot of us thought this was a Texas team that would work its way adequately through a difficult non-conference schedule, learn and grow through the brutal Big 12, and be a strong team by March. Instead, we're blazing through our non-conference schedule and are already a better team than we were at any point last year. I'm with Rick Barnes 100% when he says that we're not better because Durant is gone (I think we'd be Final Four favorites with him here), but there's no question that this group is much further along than last year's was at this time. And there's still a long way to go. I'll make my obligatory Gary Johnson mention. I'll note that WingMan has the body to be a productive freshman throughout the year. I think Damion James is a freakishly difficult player for opponents to deal with. Connor Atchley's development is jaw-dropping. And DJ Augustin hasn't hit his ceiling yet. It's impressive and should only get better.
Last year, AJ Abrams' game was just running around shooting three pointers. He was like Reggie Miller, who would sometimes go entire games just running screens and popping threes. This year? He's added some Rip Hamilton to his game. The Pistons' star guard (though six inches taller than AJ) uses screens like Reggie Miller, but he uses them to secure 15 foot jumpers more than anything else. AJ's doing that this year, with terrific results. Abrams' shot from beyond the arc was off last night, but it didn't hamper his effectiveness as an offensive player one bit, as he just curled in to hit shorter jumpers or take the ball to the rim. And he finished!
Last season, Abrams was a damn frustrating player despite being such an important one. If a team took away his three point game, he was more liability than help to the team, as he couldn't score from inside the arc and played terrible defense. This year, he's diversified his scoring arsenal, making him a dangerous player to have out there at any time, and completely justifying his 35 minutes of playing time. The defense is improved, too, but it's the 2-point scoring that really impresses me about AJ this year. Kudos to him and the Texas staff for helping him take that step forward.
I wish we'd seen more of it last year, but it's great that Rick has added more pick and rolls to the Texas offense this year. Maybe Rick watched how devastating Steve Nash is with the pick and roll, because he's using it much more with Augustin this year, with terrific results. It's far more disruptive to the defense than the clear out plays we ran/run for Durant/Augustin.
Home vs Texas State – Saturday 12/15 5:00 p.m.