The #25 Longhorns once again failed to put together a full 40 minutes of basketball on Saturday afternoon at the Drum but did improve their record to 17-7 overall and 7-3 in the Big 12 with a much needed, 77-68, victory over Iowa State (12-12, 3-7). The win stops a two game losing streak and keeps the Longhorns in a tie for third place with Kansas State in the Big 12 standings.
Good Stuff There were lots of high points against one of the conference's weakest teams, especially in the first half. The Horns thoroughly dominated the first twenty minutes on both ends and took a 42-23 lead into the break. On defense, Texas played maybe their best half of pressure man-to-man this season, holding Iowa State to just 36% shooting, defending the three pointer well, and keeping the Cyclones away from the free throw line (just 4/4. Texas forced a dozen Cyclone turnovers while preventing Iowa State from establishing any sort of rhythm.
The improved defense also helped Texas' offensive efficiency. The Horns were able to run off of ISU turnovers and get easy points in transition. DJ Augustin's bounce pass to Craig Winder on the break was simply a thing of beauty. It wasn't just in transition that we were effective, though. Texas' half court offense looked as good as it has all season. The Horns moved the ball crisply around the perimeter, fed Kevin Durant in the low post, knocked down the open jumper, and spread the floor, which allowed Augustin to consistently attack the basket. Texas shot over 55% from the floor, knocked down three three-pointers, and was a solid 9-for-11 from the line in the first half. Another impressive aspect of our first half offense was the Horns' passing: on 15 first half baskets, Texas had 10 assists. In a half court offense that is often times dictated by one-on-one moves, it was encouraging to see the Horns working together so well.
DJ Augustin was phenomenal. Fans are so often gushing about the exploits of Kevin Durant that Augustin is, at times, overlooked. DJ did it all against ISU: 31 points (9/13 from the floor and 10/10 from the line), six assists, and four steals in 38 minutes. The Texas coaching staff reportedly asked Augustin to look for his shot more and become a more vocal leader on the floor. Based on this performance, he was obviously listening. As we get closer to the NCAA tournament, I feel this is an opportune time to remind college basketball fans that the tournament is a guard's game. If Augustin can continue to feed Durant, attack the rim, knock down the open three, and play solid on-the-ball defense, Texas could really blossom. DJ's ability to score has become even more important as Abrams continues to struggle to find open looks from three.
The other two Horns with solid performances were Damion James and Connor Atchley. James scored 10 points (5/5 shooting), grabbed five rebounds, blocked a shot, and had one steal despite playing just 23 minutes due to foul trouble. When he was on the court, James exhibited great energy on both ends. His jump shot has looked much better in recent games, and he's finally starting to make defenses pay for leaving him to double team Durant. Even though Atchley didn't start, Connor was again a presence on the floor with five points, three rebounds, a block, and a steal in just 17 minutes. Unlike in some games, Atchley played physical post defense without fouling in this one.
Bad Stuff It's hard to call Kevin Durant's performance "bad," but against his high standards, this was an off game. Kevin was double and tripled teamed in the post on just about every touch, and he wound up forcing some shots. He also had trouble converting the easy six and eight footers that he normally knocks down. While he did get to the line eight times, his free throw woes continue. For a guy who was shooting close to 90% earlier this season, 5-for-8 from the line is unacceptable. On defense, Durant did have five steals, but also wasn't able to corral some rebounds he got his hands on. Most importantly, though, he came through when it counted, as one of his steals led to a late game three point play which sealed the victory, as he was fouled on a spin move after going the length of the floor. For the game, Durant had 17 points, six rebounds, two assists, a block, five steals, and four turnovers. While hardly a "bad" performance, it was probably his worst performance of the year in a conference game.
Our second half energy, especially on defense and on the defensive glass, was also poor. The Horns won the game in the first half and were forced to hold on in the second half as ISU cut the lead to as few as seven points. While it can be difficult to focus when you establish a big lead early, a better team could have really made things interesting down the stretch. Simply put, defensive lapses like the ones in the second half will doom the Longhorns' chances of a deep NCAA tournament run.
AJ Abrams remains mired in a deep shooting slump. Abrams was an awful 1-for-10 from floor and scored just five points in 35 minutes. While he did grab six defensive rebounds, the Longhorns will need at least a few catch-and-shoot threes from Abrams each game. The floaters and runners simply have to stop. If AJ is putting the ball on the floor, then it is time to pass. He is not strong or quick enough off the bounce to get to the rim, nor is he accurate or tall enough to shoot the ball consistently off the dribble.
Overall, this was a huge win. The Longhorns remain near the top of the Big 12 standings and grab another win on their quest for at least a 20 win regular season. Again, the next three games (OSU, at Baylor, and Texas Tech) remain `must wins' because the final three games (at OU, A&M, and at KU) will be extremely difficult. For the second straight week, the turnaround between weekend games and the first game of the new week remains just two days. Texas hosts Oklahoma State at 8 PM on Monday night.
*Other Note: Rick Barnes tied former coach Tom Penders for first place in school wins with his #208th career victory at Texas. Congratulations, Rick!