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Longhorns Coast Past Rice, Look Toward UCLA

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Game Recap: Despite a fairly flat and average performance from the No. 7 Longhorns, Texas (5-1) ran away from Rice in the second half to win comfortably, 77-56. For most of the game, the Longhorns looked like they were still shaking off the effects of their trip to Maui. Texas did not look bad but they certainly were not sharp either.

Rice played the Longhorns to a draw for the first ten minutes of the game and even took the lead a couple of times at 16-14 and 19-17. The early Rice advantages were due in large part to four three-pointers by Lucas Kuipers. As Kuipers cooled off, so did the Owls. Texas led 37-30 at the half and never looked back.

The Longhorns played a more efficient second half with better ball movement, more disruptive man-to-man defense, and more urgency of the defensive glass. Texas scored 40 second half points as five players reached double figures in the game—Justin Mason 14 pts, Damion James 12, Gary Johnson 12, Connor Atchley 11, and AJ Abrams 10—and another, Varez Ward finished close with eight points.

The outcome was: Never in doubt. After letting Rice hang around with long-range jumpers, the Longhorns turned up the defense. The margin allowed Rick Barnes to tinker with different lineups. Barnes played small ball for portions of the second half with three and even four guards on the floor at the same time. I don’t think we will go small very often, but it was fun to watch the Horns really pressure the ball with five guys who can move laterally. Barnes may have also decided to go small after completely forgettable minutes by Matt Hill and Clint Chapman in the first half. With Alexis Wangmene sidelined, in a precautionary move with an injured knee, the best bench contributors were guards Varez Ward and Dogus Balbay. Both played over 20 minutes, and both played well. It was nice to see the Longhorns able to score even with Ward and Balbay on the floor at the same time.

Stat of the Game: Team Assists to Turnovers: 15 – 8. The biggest question entering this season was how the ‘Horns would replace DJ Augustin as the point. It was no surprise that turnovers have been a problem early in the season, but this afternoon they were not. Mason had four assists to three turnovers; Balbay added four more assists without a turnover; Abrams had two assists and no turnovers, and freshman Ward finished with two assists and two turnovers. There is no way we are going have the fewest turnovers in the nation, like we did last season, but as long as the Texas guards have more assists than turnovers, Barnes will be happy. The real test in protecting the basketball will come on Thursday against Ben Howland’s UCLA defense.

The Offensive MVP was: Everyone. With five guys in double figures, it is too hard to single out just single player. Looking back to my preview, Abrams took good shots; James scored the ball inside and crashed the offensive glass; Connor was somewhat active with a couple of three-pointers; Johnson looked to kick the ball more when he was doubled; and Mason scored with three-pointers, on drives, and from the line.

The Longhorns are certainly still lacking a go-to scorer. It will be interesting to see what happens in a close game late. Does Barnes ask Mason to create off the dribble? Do we go to Abrams on the baseline for a jumper? Or do we try to feed the post and look to create inside-out? At this point, I’d say Mason off the dribble but this team will be much more dangerous offensively when the offense starts with Johnson, Atchley, or Pittman in the low post and goes back out from the there.

The Defensive MVP was: Dogus Balbay. Again, this designation could go to a couple of players. James played well defensively and ended with two steals and a block and Mason added three steals of his own to complete a solid overall performance. However, Balbay stood out with the most memorable defensive play of the game.

Rice had an easy two on zero fast-break lay-up erased by an incredibly athletic block by Dogus. Balbay caught the ball from behind, slashed across the lane, and threw a one-handed attempted lay-up backwards. For the second game in a row, he made a block that most players six inches taller than him can’t make.

The Dexter Pittman Watch: 6 points (1-of-3) and three rebounds in eight minutes. Big Dex is a starter in name only. He has started the last few games and played until just shy of the first tv timeout before he becomes visibly winded. When he is in the game, he is a force in the paint. Unfortunately, he is still not able to stay on the floor long enough to be a real factor in the game.

In the last couple of games, it has been foul trouble that plagued him; this afternoon, it was probably stamina and the pace of the game being too fast for him. Most of you are bigger Dex supporters than I am. However, I really want to see him succeed and I want Texas to have an interior force that opponents must game-plan to stop. Call me pessimistic, but I don’t see that happening this season. Dex is still not able to play more than four or five consecutive minutes, is slow on off-the-ball defense, and has trouble elevating on jump hooks and rebounds.

Three Things: (1) Mason is your point guard. The Abrams at point experiment is over. Unless Balbay was also in the game, Mase handled the duties at the point. Again, this is not a knock on Abrams. In fact, AJ is better able to score off catch-and-shoot jumpers when he plays off the ball and can run the baseline as well. Abrams is also able to make plays for his teammates off baseline curls when he is off the ball. This may not bode well for Abrams’s future as a point guard in the NBA. It does, however, bode well for the Texas Longhorns this season.

(2) The defense was good but not great. It is easy to look and see that the Owls shot just 33% from the floor and conclude that Texas played outstanding defense. The Longhorns did play good defense, but they still can improve. The guards need to not fall for so many shot fakes, the post men need to do a better job defending low post position, and everyone needs to do a better job on the defensive glass. UCLA will kill Texas on the glass if we see a similarly lackadaisical effort on Thursday night.

(3) The rest of December won’t be easy. As mentioned, Texas hosts No. 13 UCLA on Thursday, travels to New York for a match-up with No. 20 Villanova next Tuesday, plays No. 5 Michigan State in Houston on December 20th, and travels to Madison on December 23rd for a game with No. 25 Wisconsin. Yikes!

Box Score

NEXT GAME: Home vs. UCLA – Thursday 12/4 8:00 p.m. ESPN