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How Sweet It Is: Texas To Houston!!

For the fifth time in the last seven years, the Texas Longhorns are headed to the Sweet 16. Any and all Rick Barnes haters can [redacted to keep the site PG-13].

If you’re a little uneasy about the way this game finished, let me urge you to set that aside for a moment and let out a primal scream of joy. Texas dominated this game throughout, and though the ending was closer than you’d like to see, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Most important, Texas is headed to mother#$@*& Houston!!!

One of the nice things about watching a game by yourself is the opportunity to take solid notes. That was me today, so I’ve got quite a bit of post-game commentary. The notes are so diverse that I won’t bother trying to make it all flow together. Straight bullet points:

About five minutes before tip, I scribbled down the following "Keys To The Game" :

  1. One and done – limit Miami on the offensive glass; be especially aware of long boards off jumpers.
  1. AJ feeling it – we’re unstoppable when he’s locked in on his jump shot
  1. Be an inside team – control the glass, don’t just weave the perimeter
  1. Be determined to win, as opposed to afraid to lose

Reviewing each, today was quite the success.

  1. Texas outrebounded Miami 39-25 on the day and, most impressively, limited the ‘Canes to just 5 offensive rebounds. I’m pretty sure Miami secured three of those offensive rebounds in the first three minutes of the game, and the issue never appeared in my notes again.
  1. Abrams finished 7-13 from the floor, including 6-10 from downtown. Add in 6-6 from the stripe for good measure and Texas fans are wondering whether we can petition to have the Houston Regional moved to Little Rock. For the weekend, AJ finishes 17-29 from the floor, 12-20 from downtown, leading Texas with 26 points in both games. Absolutely brilliant, and if he’s feeling it in Houston, we’re the favorites.
  1. Texas didn’t run the offense through the low-post too often, but when you’re hitting 13-26 from three-point range, it doesn’t matter. Most importantly, Texas cleared the glass and didn’t just run the perimeter weave. Even though there wasn’t much low-post scoring from Texas’ forwards, the Longhorn guards did a good job of getting into the lane on penetration.
  1. Texas came out confident and playing to win. You can quibble that we eased off the gas pedal a little too early, but in a one-and-done tournament, draining that clock wasn’t a strategy I disagreed with. Moreover, if Texas shoots adequately from the free throw line, they coast in to the victory by 8-12 points.

AJ Abrams wasn’t just the Offensive MVP today, he was probably the Defensive MVP as well. Miami must have run a hundred screens for McClinton today, and AJ was absolutely phenomenal in chasing him around the court. He took the right angles around screens and did a terrific job of making Miami’s sharpshooter catch the ball at least 23 feet from the basket. AJ also did a great job of being involved in the rebounding effort, securing four tough boards in traffic. Absolutely his best game in weeks.

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The Texas team defense is infinitely better than it was a year ago and through the first half of this season. I scribbled "GREAT HELP D!!" in my notes over and over and over today. If you have the game on tape and plan on watching again, check out how well we’re doing switching, showing on screens, and denying passing angles with team help. There are a lot of differences between this year’s team and last, but the team defense is perhaps the biggest. It’s the single most important reason we’re a legit Final Four contender, as opposed to a team you don’t want to catch on its best offensive night.

We all know how good Connor Atchley has been this year, but it’s increasingly apparent to me that Atchley’s important to this team in ways that aren’t as obvious as his scoring and defense. In particular, the two-man game he and DJ run is so much smoother than the two-man game DJ runs with anyone else. Not just that, but the drop off to everyone else is pronounced. Whether it’s Damion, Gary, or WingMan trying to run the two-man game in Atchley’s place, it’s not half as effective as the chemistry those two have. He must remain on the floor for Texas in Houston.

I know it’s tempting after one of Dexy’s great games to say Rick Barnes is under-utilizing Pittman, but today was a great example of why it’s hard to stick him out there consistently. Yes, he’s a beast in the middle and has enormous potential to dominate collegiate players... but my God, does he continue to make a lot of boneheaded plays. His defense is absolutely awful on an unacceptable number of possessions, and his body control remains a huge issue. As easy as he makes it look during his best games, he has to take a big step forward in doing the little things right if he’s going to be consistently effective.

Has there ever been a Rick Barnes Texas team with this much leadership and chemistry? At one point in the second half, after a particularly excellent Texas run that gave us our biggest lead of the day, I thought a bit about this team as compared with Rick’s previous two best teams: 2005-06 and 2002-03. The ’06 group was insanely talented and terrific defensively, but lacked a quality point guard and struggled mightily at times to create offense. The ’03 team was perhaps the most compelling group of Longhorns ever assembled by Barnes, and watching TJ Ford was truly one of the most joyous experiences of my sports life. Even so, at its essence, that team was an elite point guard leading a cast of lovable characters/role players to great success.

Compare those teams to this year’s squad. Though DJ is an elite point guard, he’s not doing this all by himself. He’s the centerpiece, but not the only star. And we’re finally playing team defense in a way that’s comparable to the ’06 group. It might be, in other words, that we’ve got the best of each. Whatever happens in Houston, it’s worth asking: Is this Rick Barnes’ best Texas team yet?

Did anyone else notice that our defensive strength today was man-to-man? Miami was on the verge of being blown out when we switched to zone in the first half, allowing them a string of three point baskets to stay in the contest. Not only did the zone take pressure off Miami, but the man-to-man defense looked like a real strength to me. That’s a big, big development.  

This begs the question: what to play against Stanford? It’s a damn tricky match up because, on the one hand, leaving our bigs in man coverage against the Lopez twins is a scary proposition, but, on the other, our defensive rebounding suffers mightily when we play zone defense. I think the most important goal has to be focusing the defensive effort on where we let the Lopez boys catch the ball. If they’ve got a foot in the paint, they’re near-impossible to stop. Pushing them out just a foot or two from the block makes a world of difference.

I’m sure over the next week Andrew and I will look for every little nugget of info on Stanford and the best way to beat them, but watching today, did anyone else think to themselves, "It’s sink or swim with our outside shooting"? Occam’s Razor, right? When AJ, Connor, DJ and Damion are stroking it from the perimeter, we’re a team that can beat Tennessee by 19 on a neutral floor, or UCLA in their own gym. And when they’re not? A loss to Texas Tech isn’t out of the question. For all the little stuff we’re likely to cover this week, that’s probably the biggest thing to watch for in Houston: are the guys comfortable shooting at Reliant?

As far as letting Miami back into the game at the end... I’m not of the opinion that our strategy was misguided down the stretch. I thought, first, it was wise to drain the clock when possible, and second, that if Texas’ players had just executed a little bit better we wouldn’t have been sweating there at the end. 13 turnovers and 12-21 from the free throw line were the only reasons Texas didn’t win this thing by double digits. And if we want to spin a little silver lining into this thing, it’s probably not the worst thing that our guys dealt with some high pressure tournament minutes at the end of the game.

If I had to pick two areas I wasn’t thrilled with today I’d choose our interior defense and our transition defense. If we earned an A+ for our perimeter defense today (critical, given Miami’s strength), I didn’t think we did a consistent enough job playing solid position defense on the inside. Part of that was probably due to how focused we were on taking away Miami’s guard game, but it’s worth noting as we face a team as strong in the paint as Stanford. The transition defense was just pitiful in the second half, allowing Miami at least four too-easy buckets to stay in the game late. This one’s just a matter of execution – shut off the damn penetration at the free throw line.

Finally, let’s all raise our glasses and toast Rick Barnes and the 2007-08 Texas Longhorns basketball team. As far back as November, we dreamed about the opportunity to get to San Antonio via Houston. Amazingly, they’ve done just that. It took wins over Tennessee, UCLA, and Kansas – among many others – but they did it. With the team’s 30th win of the season today, they’ve tied the school’s single-season record and get to go to Houston with an opportunity for #31. Win or lose, that’s all you can ask for.

Hook ‘Em