The Texas Basketball Report returns to its usual Friday in-season slot. As it happens, this may be all you get from me for a week; exams begin Monday and I spent all semester writing about football. Time for a sprint to the finish.
RECORD 7-1 (0-0) BRACKET TRAJECTORY #2 seed LAST WEEK 2-0 (68-64 vs UCLA; 67-58 at Nova--MSG) KENPOM NATL. RANK #8 national LONGHORN MVP AJ Abrams (31 points v. UCLA; 26 points, 4 AST, 0 TOs against Nova) OFF. EFFICIENCY (RANK) 108.0 (#63) NEXT WEEK Sat, 12/13 vs Texas St (3-4) / Tues, 12/16 vs Texas Southern (0-8) DEF. EFFICIENCY (RANK) 76.1 (#3) NATL. RANKINGS #6 AP / #6 Coaches / #15 RPI STRENGTH OF SCHED. Offense #15, Defense #155, Overal SOS #48
ONE STONE, MANY BIRDS.
Texas' second half offensive performance against Notre Dame was among the worst I've seen during Rick Barnes' decade in Austin. Given the Irish' offensive prowess, the defense wasn't all that bad, but the Longhorns with the basketball did not just struggle -- they were painful to watch, as AJ Abrams and Damion James took turns playing one-on-five junk ball. Only Notre Dame free throw woes and a too-late three point spree from Abrams kept the game within a possession to the end.
Living outside the local TV market, I hadn't seen all of Texas' early games, and though Wiggo kept telling me that the team looked promising in important ways, the egg the 'Horns laid in Maui against Notre Dame was ugly enough that I immediately began to reconsider my preseason optimism. Heading into this season, I was hopeful that Texas' depth, a significantly improved frontcourt, and another big step forward from Damion James would be enough to carry Texas to 20+ wins by March, at which point Balbay might be seasoned enough to give Texas critical minutes at point guard. In the wake of the Notre Dame loss, I found it hard not to wonder whether this team might have severe enough half-court offense problems that, at worst, it could wind up lost in dreaded bubble team territory or, even if it comfortably made the field, entered tournament play obviously too flawed to make a run to the Sweet 16 or beyond.
(Parenthetically, what a treat for Texas fans that Rick Barnes has raised the bar so high that my November worry was centered on whether or not the team is good enough to make the Sweet 16. I think my favorite current bit of hoops trivia is that Texas is one of three teams to have made the Sweet 16 in 5 of the last 7 years. The other two? Duke and Kansas.)
In the Maui third place game against Oregon, Texas impressively clamped down on the defensive end, but it was the changes Rick Barnes decided to make on the offensive end that have proven most significant. For starters, the post-ND film session must have been a shot selection scream festival, because Texas' followed up its 25 three point attempts against the Irish with just 6 against the Ducks. Critically, though, Barnes correctly diagnosed the shot selection as a symptom of an underlying illness. AJ Abrams was so poor as the on-ball guard for so much of the Notre Dame game that Barnes made an executive decision to change course. shifting Mason to primary point. He didn't have to: Not only is AJ is solid enough with his dribble that Barnes could have opted to try to coach him up to what Texas needs, but Balbay is nowhere close to ready and Mase's minutes spelling DJ at point last year were as often awkward as not.
Rick made the wise choice. Though most Longhorns fans before the season even began thought Abrams' own limitations as a point spelled trouble, the other huge problem I have with playing him on the ball is that you can't play him off of it. While Abrams takes a lot of heat from Texas fans (certainly from me) for the things he tries to do but shouldn't, he does have an incredibly useful skill set that can do wonders for the offense:
- Abrams is a mediocre-to-bad shooter off of the dribble but among the best catch-and-shoot kids I've ever seen. It's seriously sick how quickly and in one smooth motion he can catch the ball, make the requisite pivot, and manage to release the ball perfectly squared to the basket. If you haven't been to the gym in a while, have someone feed you passes and try to catch-pivot-release in one motion without fading off to the side. It's incredibly difficult.
- Because he has that particular skill, he's a nightmare to defend when he's off the ball. Though Abrams' hoops hero is fellow little man Allen Iverson, their games are night and day; the NBA legend who I like for AJ is former Pacers sharpshooter Reggie Miller. Abrams can't sniff Reggie's all-around game for many of the same reasons he's nothing like Iverson, but watching Abrams work the baseline sprint screens to get a catch-and-shoot jumper is a hell of a lot like what I used to love watching Miller do. AJ's man not only has to run a lot, but he has to hustle and truly concentrate to prevent Abrams from getting off a clean look. It's tiring just watching someone chase AJ for 35 minutes.
- Additionally, the team benefits enormously from Abrams when he's off the ball. Bigs frequently have to show over screens (or outright run at/with AJ) if Abrams' man doesn't make it through the picks (often two), giving Texas match up advantages and, most important -- floor spacing. When a team doesn't have an elite point guard making half court offense look easy, it has to balance the floor with proper spacing and/or take advantages of mismatches the opposition concedes in defense. At the very least, Abrams' shooting ability stretches the defense enough such that even if he's not finding open room to shoot, he's still providing for his teammates valuable space. Though he's been working through some issues of his own, Damion James' breakout season in my mind depended on Abrams being off ball where he could catch-and-shoot if open or, even if not, by his threat presence help create the kind of spacing Damion James could take advantage of.
There's more, but those are the most important reasons why -- even absent an obvious alternative -- Barnes was wise to get AJ off of the point. For his part, Abrams has with each successive game further bought into the concept, his tempo Tuesday night near-perfect as he played within his roles. The Longhorns do need Abrams scoring this year, but the upside of the team is apparent now that he's doing it from the wing.
All that talk about Abrams and not a word yet about the player who's providing the alternative energy -- Justin Mason. Frankly, I didn't see much in Mason's limited point guard opportunities last season to indicate he could be anything more than adequate in that role this year. But here we are, and though Mason's style is very much different from a classsic point guard, he's molded himself into a surprisingly effective one. The junior guard already sits at 41 assists to just 22 turnovers, a ratio only a smidge behind Augustin's last year.
Simply put, he's demonstrating over and over a very comfortable grasp of where the ball needs to be and how to get it there quickly. Easy as that sounds, it's remarkable how many obscenely skilled high school and college players never approach the potential those skills suggest because they're either disinterested or incapable of becoming basketball players, instead of just great athletes. Justin Mason is a good athlete, but it's the progress as a basketball player that's making his career at Texas an increasingly productive one.
Also important, Mason has demonstrated enormous improvement of body control when he's dribbling the ball. A year ago Mason often looked like he was playing on a slip n slide -- his crossover was as likely to break his own ankles as those of his defender. Whether he got better shoes or just worked hard at improving, Mason has far exceeded any and all expectations based on what he showed a year ago: Gone is the slip n slide act, replaced by a physically strong guard with a much improved quick first step, the combination of which has resulted in several highlight real slams.
Though Justin Mason is far from what anyone might call a prototypical point guard, if his current level of play is sustainable, Texas might well play their way into the 2-seed for which they currently project.
JUST GETTING STARTED
The post-ND improvement has been exceptionally important (and fun to watch), but the real treasure in this young season's storyline lies in the enormous amount of growth potential for this team. Texas is 7-1 (and should be 8-0), picking up this past week two seed-relevant victories against UCLA and Villanova. The coming week (Texas State and Texas Southern) provides useful cannon fodder for players and the team to progress before they head out on the road for two Big 10 teams in four days (Michigan State on 12/20 in Houston and at Wisconsin on 12/23). Both contests provide a big enough test that winning one of the two would be a success and victories in both would launch Texas into the #1-seed discussions which begin in earnest each January.
That would be fun, but seeding isn't especially important, outside situations like last year's opportunity to be the #1 seed in Houston. (And even then the short travel and Texas-friendly crowd did nothing to help Texas against a deeper, stronger, better Memphis team.) This past week the Longhorrns showed fans that it's far too soon to count out any goals as unattainable. The spacing, ball movement, and team passing say something good both about Rick Barnes and this particular group. Combining that with this year's team defense (the best I've seen from Rick, who's had some good ones) and the development we're likely to see between now and March, the Longhorns should launch into post-season play with a really interesting and impressive roster of contributors.
In next week's report, we'll take a look at each player on the roster -- where they stand right now and where they could realistically be by tournament time.