I said before this tournament started that I was neutral about the outcome, but when we got down 20 to Baylor, I have to admit, I was not happy. As we started to claw back in it, with Kevin slapping his hands together to set the defensive tone for Texas and Craigory emerging from the netherworld to begin his ascent as March hero, I got juiced. And when DJ hit that running eight footer to put Texas ahead to stay, I was positively thrashing about my friend's living room in celebration. It was borderline embarrassing, to be honest.
"Hell yeah we beat Baylor!"
I think my enthusiasm was elevated by Texas A&M's loss to Oklahoma State, too. It's not so much that I didn't want to play the Aggies, or didn't think Texas could win that semifinal draw - it's that the sideshow that accompanies matchups with the Aggies these days has become unfortunately obnoxious. The Aggies are drunk on their recent success, and I've yet to meet a BON'er who's capable of letting a sheep joke opportunity slide by (myself included). It's become a messy, unwelcome distraction. Truth be told, both teams are excellent, and I'm glad we didn't have to endure another pissing contest between the fan bases.
What's been incredible about Texas' two Big 12 tourney wins so far has been the manner in which we've pulled them out. Beating Baylor and Oklahoma State isn't something to get worked up about, but the manner in which we've earned the pair of wins has been something to behold. Durant has been the Big Story, of course, but the emergence of Craigory off the bench has been one of those March moments that we live for.
If I were even slightly more humble, I'd not remind readers of the last Texas Basketball Report, but I'm not, so I will. Last Thursday's report practically begged Rick Barnes to give Craigory a chance to shine:
Of course, I absolutely have to admit that as prescient as my pleading turned out to be, I had no idea that Craigory could and would provide the kind of critical lift that he has. Against Baylor, Winder chipped in 12 breathtaking minutes - almost all in the second half - highlighted by 8 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 steals. Without his energy and defense, Texas loses to Baylor - no question about it. Against Oklahoma State, Winder gave us 20 minutes, 3 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 0 turnovers. Again, without that contribution, it's questionable whether Texas wins. Remember, too, that on Saturday Winder was once again the best perimeter defender on the floor for Texas. It's pretty difficult to overstate the impact he's had on this tournament thus far.
And what about Kevin? If we're honest with ourselves, he's entering Vince Young territory. No, really, he is. There are distinct moments during the games these days when you can't help but think to yourself, "This is the best college player I've ever seen." Open GameDay Threads regularly feature series of comments where several of us just type things like, "Wow. I have no words for what I'm seeing."
Before the hyper-protective Vince Young fans lash out at me, I don't mean the comparison to extend too far. Kevin's not won any championships, and even if he does, it won't mean to most of the fanbase what Vince's epic 2005 season and Rose Bowl win did. So don't make the point, because I'm not contesting it. This is about the level of performance that we're seeing, and what Kevin's been doing of late is the equivalent to what Vince Young was doing during his time in Austin. Remember that ungodly pump fake and 80 yard touchdown run against Oklahoma State in 2004? I don't know if you can recall the way you felt when that happened, but I certainly can, and Kevin made a play on Saturday that left me feeling the same way. Durant caught the ball four feet off the left block, made a lightning quick spin, managed to keep his pivot as he rotated around his defender and elevated for a one-hand slam that was his highlight of the year. I mean it: I've not felt this way about a collegiate athlete since Vince Young. Take it or leave it as you will, but I'm cherishing every last moment here. This is a once in a lifetime player. Enjoy the ride.
With the win, Texas gets another shot at the streaking Jayhawks of Kansas, who have played themselves into - gulp - NCAA tournament favorites. Honestly, I think they have to be. They play great defense, they have a dynamic title-caliber player in Julian Wright, and they can beat you with any number of weapons. Aside from Durant, no one in the country is playing better basketball than Julain Wright, and he impacts the game in so many different ways that I've come around to believe Kansas is a legitimate threat to win it all. My big knock on Kansas was that they had too many guys that just disappear, but Wright's emerged as a guy that's too gifted to ever get lost in the shuffle. He's a freak of an athlete with basketball skills that have been rapidly catching up to his body's abilities. At this point, he's a complete and total nightmare for opponents. If he's having a great game, Kansas is almost unbeatable. His impact is that profound.
With all that said, what are the keys to a victory this afternoon?
- First and foremost, DJ Augustin has to snap out of the funk he's been in. I gave Bill Simmons a hard time for over-simplifying his evaluation of DJ, but Simmons did spot the right weaknesses in Augustin's game. Smart teams are muscling him up and making his life as a penetrator a difficult one, and the freshman is still a little slow to adjust his tactics to the defensive strategy. Using his quick first step to penetrate is still a good idea, but DJ needs to adjust his mindset from "penetrate to score" to "penetrate to set up others." The high screen and roll with Durant and James needs to be a staple of today's game.
- Ride Craigory! The Longhorns got torched in the second half in Lawrence in part because they couldn't defend the perimeter. Texas has proven itself frighteningly vulnerable to teams that can shoot the three ball effectively, but Winder provides Texas with a legitimate upgrade in close-out defense on the outside. He's hot, he's playing the role we need him to, and Kansas' guards can be frustrated into bad shots - Texas needs to keep Craigory involved in the gameplan.
- As important as the fast break is to our offense, we simply can't afford to let Kansas enjoy another big day on the offensive glass. If we have to send five to the glass for big chunks of the game - we have to do it. Kansas will struggle to be an efficient offense at times - giving them extra chances negates that. One and done is imperative.
- We've been winning an awful lot of late, so this is kind of getting lost in the euphoria, but someone needs to forward Rick the rule book: timeouts don't carry over into the next game, nor into the NCAA Tournament. If the Jayhawks get on a run, Rick: use a timeout. Even if there's a TV timeout on the way. The Big 12 tourney is being hosted in Oklahoma City, but I'll guarantee you that a strong majority of the crowd will be decked in Jayhawk blue. They travel well, they're loud, and they'll be ready to close out Texas if they can smell blood. Especially at the end of a taxing end-of-season stretch, these players are going to be gassed. It will be a big mistake if Rick doesn't use all his timeouts - even if they're just to buy extra rest.