In the first true test of the season, Texas failed. The Longhorns fell to 3-1 with an 81-80 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame in the second round of the Maui Invitational. Failure may be a bit harsh for just the fourth game of the season; however, elite teams are measured by what they do against good teams not by how well they dominate inferior ones. Well, Notre Dame is a good team and Texas failed to execute like they're capable of on either end of the floor.
The Longhorns started quickly by feeding the post and led 9-5 at the first television timeout. After the timeout though, the Irish heated up from downtown and sank four threes in the next couple of minutes to take a 19-13 lead. Notre Dame held their lead to the half, 43-40, and led throughout the second but never by more than a couple of buckets. Texas did close quickly in the final minute as Notre Dame struggled from the line and gave the Longhorns one final chance. It was not to be, though. AJ Abrams's three-quarter court heave at the buzzer clanked off the front rim, and Texas headed to the third place game tomorrow. Texas will take on the North Carolina and Oregon game loser at 3:30 pm central on ESPN2.
This was a very disappointing game for me as I'm sure it was for the players and for Rick Barnes. The early season identity of tough defense and team offense faded into lazy defense and a me-first, individual offense. Notre Dame is a good team but I firmly believe that Texas fans will look back at this game later this season and really want a do-over. If Texas plays even decently, they win this game. But they didn't play well; let's take a look why.
This Texas team is not skilled enough offensively to defeat solid opponents, at this point in the season, without a strong effort on defense. Tonight, the defense was MIA. Unlike in previous games, Texas allowed dribble penetration, over adjusted to stop the ball in the paint, and couldn't recover quickly enough on the hot Notre Dame shooters. The Irish sank 11-of-24 from behind the arc with mostly good looks and all of them coming within the flow of the offense. Texas also struggled to put a body on the Irish forwards near the glass. Texas was and is the more athletic team but it doesn't matter if you don't block out. Last, the Longhorns didn't create turnovers and weren't able to start their offense with good defense. Texas caused just six Irish turnovers and scored just 12 points off the takeaways.
This was mostly a half-court game and played at the tempo that Notre Dame preferred. I would have liked to see the Longhorns apply more full-court pressure, like they have in their previous three games, and try to disrupt the Irish offense.
To get better, Texas needs to get back to owning the defensive glass, stopping dribble penetration, and following their scouting reports. There was no reason for the Texas guards to be helping on post defense or sagging to cut off dribble penetration if it meant leaving Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney open on the perimeter.
The offense actually looked pretty good in the first half. Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman were involved in the offense, Damion James attacked the rim a couple of times, and even Connor Atchley got involved with a nice pick-and-pop three. The only frustration of the first half, Abrams jacking contested perimeter threes, really showed up in the second. After Pittman was forced to sit with four fouls, the Texas offense became completely perimeter oriented. James began to settle for jump shots, Atchley was invisible, and Abrams failed to differentiate a good shot from a bad one.
Abrams did sink a couple of late threes which helped cut the Notre Dame lead but 8-of-27 from the floor is unacceptable. Abrams is not a selfish player, but in the second half he played like one. One night after he played one of his best halves as a Longhorn and totally within the flow of the offense, the old AJ reared his ugly head. It doesn't matter that a couple of his threes fell late. His poor shot selection throughout the second half hurt the team. Period.
To get better, Abrams and James must recognize and capitalize on their offensive skills. AJ should be taking about 15 shots per game, attacking the rim when he gets overplayed, and looking to create for his teammates as defenders hedge to take away his open looks as he curls off screens. DaMo needs to find himself and play more in control. He should also be attacking the paint more frequently and not settling for so many jumpers.
Overall, this was a poor effort by a talented Texas team. Like the announcers said at the end, this is a game from which Texas should get much better. They need to find an identity on offense, play more team-basketball in the half-court, and get back to the pressure defense that significantly disrupted the offenses of their first three opponents.
Tune in tomorrow afternoon to see how quickly Rick can get the Longhorns back on track.