Saturday's Big 12 title-deciding clash with Kansas didn't quite end the way we hoped, as Kansas erased a 12 point halftime deficit to defeat the Longhorns, 90-86. Texas erupted in the first half for 54 jaw-dropping points, highlighted by 11-of-14 from beyond the arc and a stretch of 12 straight possessions on which they scored. Unfortunately, Kansas hit 6 first half three pointers of their own, scored 42 points, and kept themselves close enough for their huge second half run to put Texas away.
I thought both teams played pretty well today, but Kansas' 10 rebound advantage (42-32) proved to be decisive. Game MVP has to go to Julian Wright, the most physically gifted athlete in the Big 12 conference who's just getting better and better and better as a basketball player with each passing game. Wright finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists, and must have had his hands on at least another half dozen basketballs which he kept alive for teammates to rebound. Add his unbelievably clutch block of a potential game-tying Augustin three pointer in the final seconds, and Wright had one of the best overall games of the entire Big 12 season.
Overall, Texas fans shouldn't feel badly about the showing in Lawrence. Despite the loss, Texas clearly proved they belong in the same conversation as Kansas as far as teams which are capable of making a deep March run. Both teams' fanbases, really, should have concluded from today's action that the top three teams in the Big 12 are a truly fearsome group.
The most interesting storyline heading into the game (aside from the Big 12 title implications) was the matchup of the country's #3 rated offense (Texas) and #1 rated offense (Kansas). While Jayhawk fans have to wonder if their defense is -quite- as good as some ratings indicated (Big 12 North number padding?), they must also be feeling pretty good about the offense these days. Kansas simply shredded the Texas zone in the second half, hitting one open three point look after another. The Jayhawks (18-of-33 from the field, 5-of-7 from downtown) were almost as hot in the second half as Texas was in the first. When they weren't draining their shots, they were battling hard for second chances with their significant size advantages.
There was a lot of pregame grumbling among KU fans about center Sasha Kaun, but his 9 points, 5 rebounds, and solid interior defense were as important to Kansas' success as anything else. We noted coming into this game that Texas didn't match up particularly well with Kansas, and though we certainly played extremely well for big chunks of the game, those advantages eventually helped Kanas win the battle.
Time now to discuss some individual performances for Texas, as we like to do. Bear in mind that we aren't the type to confuse individual performances with overall value to the team or season. Remember: we love all these guys.
Kevin Durant Gosh, where to start? The most insanely great half of college basketball I've ever seen? Or the moment when I peed on my friend's couch because Kevin twisted his ankle? KD's had some spectacular halves during this '06-'07 basketball season, but what he did in the first half on Saturday defied description.
No, really. Not once, not twice, but three times towards the end of the first half did commenters (me being one of the three) say in the open thread that they couldn't put what they were seeing into words. Had Durant replicated that performance in the second half, it would have been the college equivalent of an NBA 70 point game. It was that special.
The second half didn't work out for Texas for a number of reasons, but losing Durant to the ankle injury certainly didn't help. The Jayhawks were up six when the injury occurred, so it's no good to talk about it as though it somehow "cost" Texas the game. Texas' odds of a comeback, though, improve dramatically if KD's out there at full strength. As is, we'll all eagerly await the follow-up medical reports and hope Texas doesn't need him much for their first round Big 12 tournament game on Friday.
DJ Augustin It was a mixed bag for Augustin on Saturday, as he was both brilliant at times and guilty of Bill Simmons' charges at times. There were a number of drives on Saturday when DJ was plowing into the lane and I'd blurt out loud, "Noooo, DJ." Still, though DJ wasn't quite as efficient as he was on Wednesday against the Aggies, he had one hell of a ball game. He hit two stop and pop jump shots in the second half after Durant headed to the locker room that had me shaking my head in awe. During Texas' first half run, he was the second-most impressive basketball player on the floor. One of the CBS commentators brought it up during the game, and was right - Augustin's freshman season is vastly underrated because he's playing next to the best freshman to ever play college basketball. You just have to love this kid.
AJ Abrams After Kevin went down with his injury, Abrams took it upon himself to try to pick up the pace in scoring. As is a broken record around these parts, that's not when AJ plays his best basketball, and he suffered through a frustrating five minute stretch in which his wheels more or less came off as he tried to rally his team. I appreciated his trying to step up, but the results confirmed his limitations in being a guy who can play that role. He's best when he just catches and shoots; when he's creating for himself, he's not nearly as effective.
With that said, Abrams played hard today and isn't to be scapegoated. Despite the second half struggles, he really battled admirably today.
Justin Mason I feel terribly for Justin, as he just couldn't hit a shot to save his life. He finished a mere 1-for-6 fromt he field and 1-for-4 from the three point line. All his three point misses were wide open looks that he just couldn't put through the rim. Unfortunately, he's suffering a little bit from a lack of confidence in his shot, which has really stunted his ability to contribute on offense. Still, he took all the right shots today, made good decisions, and gave his usual 140% effort on defense. I still love the kid, and I hope he still knows he's a good player. Keep shooting the shots you're shooting, Jay. They'll start falling.
Damion James James chipped in 12 points and 7 rebounds, played as hard as he could on the defensive end, and stayed clutch at the free throw line. There's nothing but good things to say about the way this guy has developed as a player - both in his own abilities and his contributions to the team's efficiency. We're a much more dangerous team than we were six weeks ago because James is so much improved.
Connor Atchley Yikes - the slump continues. Atchley's just ice cold right now on both ends of the floor. He's not rebounding very well, he's not playing great defense, and he's lost all his confidence on the offensive end. The best thing Connor could do for himself would be just to erase the last four games from his memory and focus on doing every little thing right he can. We need him to bust out of this slump for postseason play.
Matt Hill Welcome back, big kid! Just as we'd all left Hill for dead, he returns from his injury and gives Texas 13 solid minutes, providing better defense than I expected and a field goal in the first half. When you think back to the Villanova game and how that worked out for Hill (0 points, 5 fouls), this was a truly wonderful development. I was proud of the way he played today. Nothing glamorous, but quietly effective in what we needed from him.
Final Thoughts Credit today goes to Julian Wright and Kansas, who took Texas' best shot in the mouth, battled through it, then roared out into the lead with a scorching second half outburst. I think a lot of us knew the Jayhawk run would come eventually, and though I'm disappointed we couldn't hold onto our lead, we knew heading in to Lawrence that leaving with a win was improbable.
Texas concludes its regular season with a 12-4 mark, good for the #3 seed in the Big 12 tournament. It's critical now for Texas to rest as much as they can, get Kevin healthy, and focus on winning their opening round matchup on Friday evening in Oklahoma City (8:20 p.m.). Texas is playing with house money at this point, which means we - as fans - needn't concern ourselves too much with the outcome of the Big 12 tournament. Whether Texas excels or stumbles (or mails it in), we've seen enough from this team in the last seven outings to know we're in a great position to make some kind of NCAA Tournament run.
Ladies and gentlemen: Regular season basketball at Texas has concluded and March Madness is officially upon us. Get excited. . .