Game Recap: In a game of runs, it was Texas that made the final one, pulling away from Kansas State down the stretch in the second half to improve to 11-2 in Big 12 play, 24-4 overall. After Kansas State hit a three pointer to tie the game at 50, Texas clamped down on defense and went on an impressive offensive run with which Kansas State couldn't keep up. Had Texas made its free throws in the final five minutes of the game, they'd have won by 15. Regardless, Texas leaves a tremendously tough road environment with a 74-65 win to assume a dominating position in the standings heading into the final three games of conference play.
The outcome was: Kansas State was a four point favorite last night and if I'm being honest, I thought they deserved to be. Both Andrew and I thought this would be our toughest Big 12 road test of the season and weren't sure a victory was in the cards.
It feels great to be wrong. At 11-2, Texas sits a full game ahead of Kansas in the conference standings, and with the head-to-head tiebreak in their favor, the Longhorns are guaranteed the top spot in the Big 12 tourney if they win two of their final three. The importance of this win nationally shouldn't be overlooked, either. More on this later today, but look at the list of quality wins on Texas' resume (Ken Pomeroy rank in parentheses):
@ UCLA (2)
St. Mary's (34)
@ Oklahoma State (50)
Texas Tech (45)
Baylor, @ Baylor (36)
Oklahoma, @ Oklahoma (37)
Texas A&M (20)
@ Kansas State (11)
That's twelve wins over Top 50 teams, including the two teams with the best statistical profiles in the country, Kansas and UCLA. Disgusting.
Stat of the Game #1: Outside two long threes by DJ early in the shot clock, Texas didn't just shoot the three well, they shot the three within the offense. All seven of Abrams' looks were shots I wanted him taking. Connor was perfect once again. DaMo didn't have a strong game and settled for his jump shot too often, but still chipped in an important 2-5 from downtown. And on the flipside, Texas did an outstanding job of making Kansas State's inferior shooters try to beat the 'Horns from outside. They couldn't, Texas won. Outstanding defensive game plan from Rick Barnes and perfect execution from the Longhorns.
State of the Game #2: Ack! On a night when nearly everyone and everything should be celebrated, this stands out as the lone black eye. It didn't cost us tonight, but it can and will if we don't put teams away from the stripe as we should. Personally, I think DJ's got too much going on before he takes his shot. He spins the ball, then dribbles three times, then spins it again, then quickly shoots. He's a terrific shooter, so his overall percentage is fine, but I know he can do better. I know everyone's got their routine at the line, but I might suggest to DJ he simplify his routine, set for a second before shooting, and just focus on that release. He can be a 90%+ shooter from the stripe. AJ Abrams going 1-4 is just inexplicable. I've never seen him miss three straight, as he did last night.
The Offensive MVP was: After a quiet first half in which he picked up two fouls and couldn't quite find his shot, Abrams came back with a huge second half that helped Texas put away the Wildcats. It wasn't just his scoring, either. Back when Abrams was slumping horribly and taking bad shots, we talked about his value added to offense just by his ability to occupy defensive capital, pointing out that if he'd clean up his shot selection, he could remain valuable even without shooting the ball. AJ had a huge impact on what Kansas State was able to do defensively last night; when he was out on the floor, Texas had significantly more room to drive and run its offense than he was on the bench. Beyond that, Abrams was spectacular with the ball in his hands, as well. His 4 dimes and 0 turnovers were indicative of his maturation as a player and decision maker, and he's feeding our bigs as well as DJ is these days. I couldn't be more impressed.
The Defensive MVP was: There are two aspects to great defense. First, there's just execution of the fundamentals. Stopping penetration, cutting off passing lanes, denying the ball, etc. Additionally, there's scouting and game planning an opponent. It's up to the players to execute, but it's up to the coach to prepare. And Rick has not only gotten this team to become excellent fundamentally on defense, he and his staff have put together some terrific defensive game plans for our opponents of late. Last night, Rick threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Wildcats, alternating between zone, tight man, some box-and-one, and even a flash of 3/4 court press. We identified KSU's strengths and schemed to make them beat us in other ways. Absolutely terrific.
The Freshman Evaluation tonight was: Two weeks ago, I wasn't sure WingMan was going to be a significant contributor to this team down the stretch, but he's rocketing up his steep learning curve, giving Texas a physical, long defender while showing dramatic improvement with the ball in his hands near the basket. He's still incredibly raw, but he's developed to the point where he can give us 15 minutes of solid basketball. That's shouldn't be undervalued.
And can we really say enough about Gary Johnson? Only a true warrior would play through the pain he's in right now. In some ways, I think Johnson's warrior mentality has spilled over to everyone else.
Three Things: We've won with DJ in a slump. We've won with Abrams in a slump. And last night we were just fine with Damion James having his worst game in a month. He didn't play badly, but he got away from a lot of what he's good at and seemed to be a little out of sync overall. No matter for Texas, which got pick-me-up performances from everyone else. Remember when we were beating teams with a five-man rotation and zero bench depth? Yeah. Seems like a long time ago...
The 2005-06 team was outstanding defensively, but last year's squad was not. And this year's squad was bad more often than not through the lopsided loss in College Station. Since then, though, Texas has been dominant on defense, and with it has come eight straight wins. If we keep this up, we're a #1 seed. If we keep this up, there's no one in the country with a more dangerous team profile.
Not just a #1 seed. The tournament's overall #1 seed is within reach for Texas right now. If you want to look ahead, Texas will be solid favorites in its remaining three games. Should it win those, it would finish at 14-2 in what is the best or second-best conference in the country. It would finish the season 28-4, with wins over TN, UCLA, and Kansas. If the 'Horns were then able to win two games to get to the Big 12 tournament final, it might just find itself the team with the top resume on Selection Sunday afternoon. Simply stunning.
Away vs. Texas Tech – Saturday 3/01 3:00 p.m. ESPN