The Texas Basketball Report returns to its usual Friday in-season slot. Previous reports: 2.1 / 2.2
RECORD 11-3 (0-0) BRACKET TRAJECTORY #3 seed LAST WEEK 1-1 (73-48 vs Appy St; 61-67 at Arkansas) KENPOM NATL. RANK #22 LONGHORN MVP Dexter Pittman (21 points, 11 rebs v. App St; 10 points, 9 rebs v. Ark)
OFF. EFFICIENCY (RANK) 107.3 (#72) NEXT WEEK Sat, 1/10 vs Iowa St (11-4) / Tues, 1/12 at Oklahoma (14-1)
DEF. EFFICIENCY (RANK) 85.8 (#11) NATL. RANKINGS #7 AP / #7 Coaches / #17 RPI STRENGTH OF SCHED. Offense #55, Defense #125, Overal SOS #80
Best Win: 68-64 UCLA. Texas protected home court, picked up a victory that will help with seeding, and for the first time against a top opponent began to flash some of the team basketball this group needs to perfect for a run in March.
Worst Loss: 80-81 vs Notre Dame. The Arkansas loss was silly, but the mess in Maui was the non-con low point. To be fair, some good came of the defeat, but the 'Horns were outright unwatchable on that afternoon. Watching AJ Abrams vs. Damion James in a ballhogging battle to singlehandedly sink the team left me sick to my stomach.
Non-conference MVP: Justin Mason. There are a lot of thigns Justin Mason, Point Guard is not -- which have important implications for the team heading forward -- but no player meant more to Texas' 8-1 stretch following the Notre Dame disaster. Add in the Arkansas game and Mason's assist to turnover ratio over the last ten games is 50:9. He stabilized an ugly situation and provides the team breathing room as Balbay and Ward come along.
Stock Up: Gary Johnson. The only reason Johnson wasn't this week's MVP was the 0-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio against Arkansas. As the decision-making catches up with the intensity, aggressiveness, strength, and talent, he'll become exactly the kind of interior menace that can help mask critical weaknesses in Texas' backcourt. Jimmer last week suggested PJ Tucker as a good comp for Johnson, which I like for a number of reasons. Johnson doesn't have Tucker's freaky-great hands and touch around the rim, but at his peak he'll provide a lot of the same offensive value, better rebounding, and stronger defense.
Stock Down: Clint Chapman. He flashes a strong offensive skill set, but defends like a wet noodle with George Muresan-slow feet. He needs to live and breathe Todd Wright for the next 9 months if he wants to earn Rick Barnes' trust.
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR CONFERENCE PLAY
1. How far away is Balbay? He's the best (only) playmaking point with the ball in his hands. Though Mason has been terrificly solid, he can't break down a defense on demand. Balbay can. The problem? Balbay can't/won't shoot the ball. Arkansas all but ignored Balbay when he had the basketball, letting his defender drift about on help D without fear that Balbay would make them pay by scoring. I'm confident Balbay's a better around-the-rim finisher than he's shown thus far and less confident (but hopeful) he can/should show enough shooting ability to foreclose a wholesale defensive abandonment of that kind. If so, he's gonna be a critical 20-25 minute player by March. If not, Texas' ability to create points outside the halfcourt will become all the more critical.
2. What's Gary Johnson's ceiling? He's already taken a big step up this year to become a blossoming 15-and-10 guy with a hunger to score that this team desperately needs. I see no reason to expect any dropoff heading forward, but the big question is whether he has another step forward in him this season. If he can continue to operate efficiently in opportune moments and learn to pass properly out of collapsing defenses, he'll double his value to this team.
3. Can Texas capitalize on its team strengths to improve in transition offense? Pleased as I am with the progress in halfcourt offense since the Notre Dame fiasco, subsequent losses to Michigan State and Arkansas have highlighted this team's lingering limitations. From the rawness of our frontcourt players as passers, to our problems related to the lack of an elite playmaker at point, it's clear that Rick Barnes needs to think about ways to get more offense out of the team's strengths in depth, defense, and athleticism. Considering Pittman's limitations as a 15-20 minute player, I'd like to see Barnes use every non-Pittman line up to press and harass on defense while looking to create open floor opportunities off turnovers and run-outs. A five man group of Abrams, Balbay/Ward, Mason, James, and Johnson/Atchley is athletic enough not to get killed on defense for being undersized, and ideal to run opponents out of the gym. If playing Pittman negates the possibility of 40 minutes of hell, Rick Barnes should at least gun for 20.
4. Will Rick Barnes learn how to teach this team to play in crunch time? Texas gave away games to Michigan State and Arkansas because the halfcourt offense steadily devolved as the second half clock wound down. As the time dwindles, Texas' offensive possessions become deliberate, counter-productive displays of purposeless dribbling and/or long, contested jump shooting. Related to much of the above, Texas should close games with an athletic line up that can press, create offense from defense, and seek run-outs in transition off misses. The stand-and-dribble/jack-a-deep-ball offense that all too frequently characterizes our end game strategy is the worst possible for our particular personnel, somewhat akin to the dreaded ill-timed prevent defense in football.
5. Does Damion James have a killer instinct? I suggested last week that Damion provided more than enough value in his supporting role not to worry about him not playing like a takeover superstar, but if the preceding points are recipes for this team making it to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend, I suspect a Final Four run is out of reach unless James demonstrates some ability and willingness to take over a game at times. Not that he needs to be that guy at all times -- he doesn't, and likely wouldn't do well trying to -- but he's the only player on the roster right now who can get a great look any time he wants it, just by virtue of his absurd athleticism. He's quick, explosive, strong, and releases his shot at his vertical peak, such that 99% of college defenders can't prevent him from getting off a solid look. If it all came together for him this year, he could in a given game score 30 points. Right now, the jumper is not consistent enough and he lacks a go-to scorer's mentality, but if when Texas most needs him he can put together a game or three in which he takes over... the Longhorns are talented enough to beat just about anyone.
Lots of ifs and could-bes for now. More important than beating Oklahoma on the road on Tuesday will be the ability of this team to develop over the next eight weeks into one that can maximize its frontcourt strengths, help its guards with better inside-out team play, capitalize on depth and defense to score in transition, and develop an ability to finish in the game's final five minutes.