This mini stretch of home games between contests with UCLA and Villanova over the last couple of weeks and trips to Houston to play Michigan State and Madison to play Wisconsin was suppose to be easy. The Longhorns were supposed to be able to rest a little, work on the fundamentals, and gain some valuable experience for their bench players. The games with Texas State and Texas Southern should have been runaway victories. Well, neither was.
However, the No. 5 Texas Longhorns (9-1) did finally tighten up the defense just enough in the second half and finally pulled away from a winless Texas Southern team, 88-72. Before I get into what went right and wrong for the ‘Horns, let me first give a ton of credit to TSU. The Tigers came to play this evening. They shot the lights out (58%), passed the ball beautifully, and played hard for the full 40 minutes. There is no reason for that team to be 0-9, and if they bring the same efficient and tough effort in their conference games, Texas Southern will have no trouble winning in the SWAC. Kudos to Texas Southern.
I am going to approach this review player by player instead of with the big picture focus which I normally do. Even though Texas only led by one point at half and didn’t pull comfortably ahead until about six minutes left in the game, there was a lot to like about the effort and the execution. So, let me start with a the stars of the game before moving onto some troubling trends.
Varez Ward Ward played the game of his young career. He was so effective that Rick Barnes went with Ward down the stretch over Damion James. Varez played a career high 28 minutes and more than contributed his fair share. Ward scored 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting, including a perfect 3-of-3 from the line, snagged five rebounds, and dished out a team-high seven assists. He was integral in kick starting the stagnant Texas half-court offense. Ward attacked the basket well off the dribble with his head up and ready to make the right play. When the defense collapsed, he pulled up for a couple of nice mid-range jumpers; when he was double he kicked the ball diagonally for open looks or dropped it into the low post for easy finishes. AJ and Dexter also played outstanding basketball but I came away most impressed with Ward. It is amazing to see where he is as a true freshman in mid-December.
AJ Abrams After a head scratching and remote throwing inducing performance against Notre Dame in Maui, Abrams has played excellent basketball. He is letting the offense come to him and making the selfless extra pass when defenses overplay him. Take a look at his last four games: 9-of-18 for 31 pts against UCLA, 8-of-18 for 26 pts against Villanova, 7-of-18 for 30 pts against Texas State, and 10-of-17 for 27 pts tonight. He is obviously a terrific shooter but 5-10 guards don’t shoot 50% unless they are taking good shots. Tonight, I was most impressed with AJ’s ability to shot fake, take one hard dribble, and either pull up for a controlled jumper or find an open big man in the post. Abrams was credited with just two assists but would have had four or five if Damion James and Dexter Pittman had finished a couple of nice looks.
Justin Mason The Tigers applied full-court pressure all game long on made baskets, of which they had plenty. Mason played under control and brilliantly attacked the pressure with the pass and with quickness off the dribble. Mason was also very good with on-the-ball pressure and was single handedly responsible for creating a few of the Tigers’ 18 turnovers. In 38 minutes of play and the ball in his hands for most of it, Mase had six assists and zero turnovers. That brings his totals over the last four games to an outstanding 28 assists to just three turnovers. Wow! No one is going to forget DJ Augustin anytime soon but Mason’s efficient ball handling is making it at least easier to move on.
Dexter Pittman For the second straight game, Sexy Dex was a beast in the middle. In a career high 24 minutes, Dex had 19 points, five boards, three blocks, an assist, and a steal. He was truly a man among boys in the paint. It was also encouraging to see Dex play more than half the game during which he had to change ends quickly. Last, Dex turned and scored over right shoulder for maybe the first time in his Texas career. If he can master a low post scoring move over his right side to go with his over powering one-handed move over his dominant left shoulder, then he will be an unstoppable college center. The next test for Dex is to play just as strong against competition of comparable size. Michigan State and Wisconsin will be the real barometer games.
Connor Atchley It is hard to give too much credit to someone who scored nine points and grabbed just two rebounds in 18 minutes, however, compared to the production Barnes has been getting from his fifth-year senior, tonight was a good sign. Foul trouble hampered his efforts in the first half but he did go 4-for-4 in the second half including a pick-and-pop three-pointer. As I mentioned in my preview, having an efficient Connor Atchley on the floor bodes well for the ‘Horns in conference play and beyond.
And now for the less impressive…
Damion James DaMo contributed nothing in the first half. He was held scoreless and I don’t remember him grabbing a single rebound. I do remember him fumbling the ball near the rim a couple of times and missing a more than one easy field goal. To his credit, though, James played better in the second half. Damion finished with seven points on 3-of-9 shooting and 1-of-3 from the line, two boards, an assist, and a steal. We need more. Period.
Gary Johnson This was not a good game for Gary. Johnson looked out of sync from his opening minutes on the floor. He continues to shoot the ball on just about every touch and force himself into space and through the defense. The quicker Gary recognizes that both he and the team benefit when he kicks the ball back out when it isn’t there, the better. In 10 minutes of play, Johnson went 0-for-4 from the field and 1-for-2 from the line for a single point.
Clint Chapman Chap was neither good nor bad. He did finish a couple of baskets around the rim that he hasn’t been finishing recently. Clint ended up with four points, a rebound, and a block in 15 minutes.
Dogus Balbay The youngster from Turkey isn’t really doing anything wrong, it is just that Abrams and Mason are playing fantastic and Ward has come on quicker than he has. I think it is too early to label Balbay’s play disappointing, but Texas fans have yet to see the incredible point guard play that was rumored to be happening in practice over the last six months. Dogus appears to have no confidence in a jump shot of any length and defenses are starting to barely even guard him. It is tough to create for your teammates when they are playing four on five.
There were two other areas on concern from tonight’s game: rebounding and transition defense. These appear to go hand in hand. First, Texas is playing a lot with three guards (Abrams, Mason, and Ward), Damion at the four, and just a single big. Abrams is often running the baseline and not a threat to grab offensive boards while Mason is usually hovering near the top of the three-point arc directing the offense. If Mason crashes the offensive glass like his instincts tell him to, there is no one left to get back on defense. If Mason stays back and protects against easy run outs, then Ward, James, and a post player are battling four or five defenders for offensive rebounds.
For this to improve Texas and Barnes have to sacrifice something. Barnes can elect to play two posts at the same time and challenge James to assist more on the offensive glass while giving up some ball handing by taking Ward off the court. Or Barnes can keep the same lineup that he has been playing and expect to get fewer second chance opportunities because Mason must stay back. Both solutions have their pros and cons obviously. Tonight, though, we did neither—Texas played small, Mason got caught trying to gather offensive rebounds, and Texas Southern burned the ‘Horns for a couple of easy buckets. It will be interesting to see how Barnes handles these issues against Michigan State on Saturday.
Overall, it is clear to me that this Texas team is just scratching the surface and that is the most exciting thing.
NEXT GAME: in Houston vs. Michigan State – Saturday 12/20 1:00 p.m. CBS