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#6 Texas Survives Texas State

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Game Recap: Much like the Rice home game, which came just after the Maui Invitational, the Texas Longhorns (8-1) came out flat against an inferior opponent yesterday afternoon against Texas State. The Longhorns played two marquee teams, in UCLA and Villanova, in the last week and the game with Texas State didn’t solicit the same energy or focus. The fans didn’t show up, the team looked tired and sloppy, and it almost cost Texas a victory.

The Longhorns jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first three minutes behind a strong start from Dexter Pittman in the post and turnover littered opening possessions by the Bobcats. As good as the start was, the rest of the first half was equally bad. Other than some nice catch-and-shoot threes by AJ Abrams, Texas couldn’t do much right. Connor Atchley missed his first two three pointers, lost any confidence he had left, and was ineffective for the entire game; the Texas transition defense was horrible; the Texas bigs took turns missing basket after basket from inside five feet, and the team shot 8-of-15 from the free throw line in the first half. Despite all that, Texas did manage to lead 38-34 at the half.

The game remained tight for most of the second half. On the positive side, Justin Mason delivered some nice passes to Clint Chapman and to Damion James in transition for dunks; Pittman was extremely active in the post and efficient from the free throw line, and James became a more active rebounder on both ends.

It was still a four point game at the under eight television timeout before Abrams provided a much needed offensive spark. Abrams knocked down a mid-range jumper on a curl move, made a steal on the next possession, and sank a game-breaking three pointer in transition to put the Longhorns up 70-63. In a smart coaching move, Barnes moved AJ to the point for the final four minutes of the game. Abrams took care of the ball beautifully and, with Texas State behind in the closing minutes and forced to foul, AJ made 8-of-8 from the stripe to close out the game.

Abrams finished with 30 points, 13 of which came in the final five minutes, as Texas survived, 81-73, and improved to 8-1.

The outcome was: Way too close. I am not going to read too much into this performance but I don’t want to make excuses either. The excuses of tip time, finals weeks, travel, or missing fans don’t really matter. There is a significant mismatch in talent between these two teams and the margin of victory should have been much larger. The Longhorns play another no-name opponent on Tuesday before hooking up with Michigan State and Wisconsin to close out 2008. I want to see the intensity and execution in the Texas Southern game before we jump to conclusions about this team overall.

Stat of the Game: Turnstile 6,415. This is embarrassing. Period. If Rick Barnes were to ever leave Austin, it will be because of this—poor fan support. This from the AP story:

Sensing a possible upset, a small group of Texas State fans piled into some empty seats behind the Texas basket to taunt Longhorns players at the free throw line.

The Offensive MVP was: Dexter Pittman. The Bobcats had no answer for Sexy Dex. In just 14 minutes, Dex secured his second double-double of his career with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Pittman was an absolute terror in the paint to start both of the halves. If he hadn’t picked up his second foul midway through the first half, Texas would have led by double digits at the break. He was that unstoppable. His perfect 7-of-7 game from the free throw stripe was a joy to watch and makes him that much more difficult to guard. It is either get out of the way and get dunked on or grab him and watch him take two easy points from the line.

Before this game, the Texas offense has relied too heavily on perimeter jumpers and dribble drives. Abrams, Mason, and James have carried almost the entire offensive load. If Dex can deliver this kind of production every game, Texas becomes a dangerous offensive team—inside and out.

The Defensive MVP was: No one. The half-court defense was decent but the lack of transition defense allowed Texas State to stay in the game. There is no reason to allow Texas State to score 16 fast break points and to outscore the Longhorns 44-28 in points in the paint. Last, Texas was outrebounded 46-42. All three of these stats get back to energy and intensity. Texas simply didn’t show up.

Three Things: (1) This team is not as deep as we think. College basketball teams are allowed to have 13 scholarship players. With J’Covan Brown’s difficulties getting into school, Texas only suits up 12 scholarship players. We learned that Alexis Wangmene is out for the season with a knee injury. Now, we’re down to just 11. Neither Harrison Smith nor Matt Hill will be contributing significant minutes any time soon. Now, we’re down to just nine players, which is not that bad. However, there are some other limiting factors--Dogus Balbay is barely playing offense, Clint Chapman moves too quickly from good to bad moments, and Dexter Pittman is capable of playing no more than 20 minutes per game. This team is nowhere near as deep as we expected them to be at the beginning of the season.

(2) Damion James is still evolving into a small forward. For as much as DaMo likes to say that the wing is his natural position, his current skill set doesn’t match his perimeter position, yet. At 6-7 and with good hops, James is an excellent rebounder. He can also play with his back to the basket and is comfortable knocking down fade-away jumpers from a few feet off the block. Last, he is excellent in transition and finishing near the rim. I’m not saying anything you guys don’t already know—when Damion is attacks the basket, he is a beast. And with that comes, the need to make free throws. Against Texas State, James was 4-for-10 (40%) and for the year, he is 21-of-37 (57%). Yikes! James needs to work on the trajectory of his free throw attempts. To me, they look way too flat and that is why he has so many rim out.

(3) Mason continues to impress at the point. Justin quietly turned in a solid performance with a career high nine assists. In the last three games, Mase has 22 assists to just three turnovers. His shooting from the field and from the line still need improvement, but he has been outstanding protecting the ball and creating for others.

Box Score

NEXT GAME: Home vs. Texas Southern – Tuesday 12/16 7:00 p.m.