We've spent so much time talking about what we wish this Texas team could become, and what we thought this group could grow into - seemingly always complaining that the group couldn't quite put together those two complete halves of basketball to reach that next level.
This evening Texas fans were treated to the most complete team effort, the most physical and energetic defensive performance, and the best coaching we've seen to date this season. All five Longhorn starters scored in double figures, AJ Abrams broke out of his slump, Damion James continued his offensive development, and - perhaps most importantly of all - Rick Barnes really had this team prepared to play its best basketball of the season.
Let's briefly get the NEGATIVES out of the way. . .
Bad Connor showed up tonight, finishing with just 2 points and 6 rebounds in 26 minutes of action. Five of his boards were on the offensive end, and he played with good energy, but he just never could get in a good rhythm this evening. Atchley's performance tonight was reminiscent of his subpar showing against the Sooners in Austin, when he was routinely outplayed in the paint. I thought it was an anomalous performance, though - just one of those nights where Connor couldn't quite get things going.
Along with Atchley's off night, Texas had some trouble with turnovers, giving the ball away 15 times to Oklahoma State. Especially in the first half when DJ went to the bench with two fouls, there was some concern that the team might come unglued and let the Cowboys hang around.
Alas, it was not to be, as everything else was a giant series of POSITIVES. . .
Let's start with Damion James, who's really starting to come into his own as a factor in this offense. From the very get-go, Rick Barnes had DJ Augustin and Kevin Durant work high screens with James. As the defense predictably rolled over the screen to double the dribbler, Barnes had his ball handlers swing the pass back to James, who had driving angles to the basket. He capitalized three times early in the first half to helpTexas build the lead, and then, in the second half, showed terrific touch on a 17 foot jump shot that's developed very, very nicely since the beginning of the year. If James can extend the defense that much more by becoming a threat to score from 14-18 feet, that's going to make guarding DJ/KD all the more difficult.
Elsewhere, DJ Augustin has quietly started making a case to be a first team All Big 12 honoree. After a little adjustment period when conference play began, he's begun to assume a dominant position on the court. His play in transition, his ability to finish strong around the basket, and his impressive court awareness were all on full display tonight, leading to 19 points and 8 assists on 6-of-10 shooting. I thought Rick did a terrific job of creating driving lanes for Augustin by sending Durant to attract attention on the screens on the opposite blocks. Augustin routinely hammered the Cowboys with dribble penetration, but it was really nicely set up and designed by Barnes tonight.
Kevin had one of those good-not-great games in which he puts up 20+ points while failing to get in any kind of real offensive rhythm. That's a testament to his talent of course, but the fact that Texas won by 29 points without Durant exploding on offense is an even better sign for the team's development. With AJ Abrams finding his shot tonight (17 points on 6-of-13 shooting) and Jay Mason also getting to double figures (10 points, 5-6 from the floor), Texas got each of its starters to double figures and showed why its offense is ranked in the top ten nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.
As much fun as the offense has been, though, tonight marked the first time Texas put together two halves of outstanding defense. The Longhorns held Oklahoma State to 37% shooting for the evening, forced 16 turnovers, and did all the little things a good defensive team does night in and night out. AW and I were stunned when Rick Barnes opened the game with AJ Abrams (instead of Jay Mason) on JamesOn Curry, but the move made sense after listening to Barnes' postgame comments.
Barnes told Craig Way, and I'm paraphrasing slightly here: "I told AJ Abrams that he was going to prove everyone wrong tonight, that we were going to put him on their best scorer (Curry) and AJ was going to work his tail off to be the kind of defender we know he can be."
AJ was far from perfect, but the effort and intensity were there in what was his (and the team's) best defensive night of the year. You could just see Texas working that much harder to rotate, flashing just a little bit higher on the screens, denying passing lanes, and pushing themselves that much more to get back in transition situations. Just that little amount of extra effort and concentration led to a drastic improvement in results, and helped open up Texas' own offense on fast break chances with Augustin out in front.
With such an impressive performance, we're left to LOOK FORWARD. . .
Lest we get too excited, we remind you that this Texas team has settled into a frustrating pattern of following great stretches of basketball with head-scratching letdowns. The strong performance in the first matchup with Oklahoma State was followed with the disaster in Philadelphia. The encore to the Texas Tech road win was a home loss to Kansas State.
It's critical that Texas channel the energy and lessons from tonight's impressive win to get prepared to take care of business in Waco on Saturday. The Longhorns are two-for-two in their current four game "must win" stretch, and can give themselves a great chance at 11 conference wins if they can get through the next two. If they play defense like they did tonight, they'll have nothing to worry about.
Anyone up for a road trip on Saturday? AW and I haven't discussed it yet, but I'm thinking a BON Waco caravan may be in order for Saturday evening's game with Baylor. If you're interested, let us know in the comment section so we can gauge interest and think about getting something organized.