The train has left the station. It is safe to board the train. I began to let myself feel cautiously optimistic after Texas' solid win in Lubbock. It seemed as though Dogus was making the strides I've maintained are necessary for this team to hit a February-March peak. AJ Abrams had been doing well in his natural shooting guard role, with timely help at point guard as needed. Jay Mason moved off ball where he provides the most value, Balbay and Abrams combining to relieve Mase of the point guard duties which he carried heroically, but was not naturally suited to perform. And Gary Johnson and Damion James were emerging as the focal points of an offense centered around smaller lineups that helped create quickness advantages and improved floor spacing.
The subsequent home win over A&M was another source of encouragement, but the important game token for Texas wasn't the victory, but that they avoided an Erwin Center defeat. It was clear enough from my perspective that the game of the month would be Tuesday night's visit to Waco, where the game token would be an invaluable road win over a tournament-bound Big 12 contender. While I readily grant that in the grand scheme of things a loss last night wouldn't have been much a demerit, it unquestionably would have quashed my cautious optimism that the 'Horns were embarking on a late-season surge. I would have been forced to retreat a bit to this season's default position: "wait and see," as in wait and see if this team can start to put it all together to develop beyond good-not-great.
Not only did Texas pick up the huge road win in Waco last night, but they did so in a game in which the two centerpieces of the New Offense were largely ineffective. Damion James shot just 6-20 from the field, while Gary Johnson was sidelined early in the game with foul trouble and logged just 13 minutes on the night. If you'd have spotted me those two stats before last night's game, I'd glumly have predicted a double-digit win for the Bears. Instead, Texas' two freshman guards fearlessly upped their own games -- in a hostile road environment, no less -- to provide invaluable production on both ends of the floor, without which Texas loses the game. Equally inspiring, Texas' lone senior guard, who has dutifully accepted his lesser role in the New Offense, stepped up and into the lead scorer role (19 points on just 12 attempts) when James & Johnson were struggling through tough games.
Certainly, the win would have been exciting and promising had it come on the backs of dominant performances by James and Johnson, but that Texas won as it did amplifies the excitement and hope for what's ahead. Throughout much of this season we fans have spent a lot of time asking one another how many of the pieces on this team would develop quickly, and then, even if they did, whether Texas as a team could develop together into a cohesive unit, with a markedly higher ceiling than could be any ill-fitting collection of individual pieces. Even more so than from the preceding two wins, we got great news on both counts last night: key individuals are developing, and this group is starting to look, feel, and play together like a cohesive team.
After the emotionally spending football season, I've been hoping that this basketball team would at some point capture my imagination. Done and done.
A new year, the same success. All my hoops commentary of late, including this post's lead note, has been hyper-focused on the steady developments I hope to see cresting in a late-season surge of peak play. The Baylor win was outstanding in that regard, but even as we continue to look forward and contemplate the team's potential ceiling if things keep developing as they have, it's worth taking a minute to reflect on what the team -- as an experimenting, evolving, experience-gaining work in progress -- has already accomplished this season. Though the early season disaster against Notre Dame and the Arkansas meltdown stand out as notable disappointments, this team has managed four wins over KenPom Top 40 squads, with the victory in Waco the third such win to come on the road (if you count Villanova at MSG). Elsewhere, though in Houston the Longhorns probably let one slip away against Michigan State, they've held serve at home (9-0), taken care of the inferior squads on their schedule, and on the whole played Top 20 basketball... all while developing young talent and trying to re-cast returnees in significantly different roles.
All of which is to say, we're not just talking about a team that's blossoming into its late-season potential, but one that won a lot of big games while it labored through the learning/growing phases of the project. Texas isn't a bubble team hoping that a late run won't prove too little, too late; it's accrued a Top 15 record as its worked up to what we're seeing lately.
I won't belabor the point, but suffice to say we have on our hands yet another season in which Rick Barnes is vividly displaying his exceptional talent as a college coach. Laugh off as ignorant any and all haters -- I'm not exaggerating when I say that I'm pretty sure I would not trade him for any coach in America. It's especially nice he's charismatic, funny, great with his players, and a standout representative for the university and athletics department, but even if he weren't all those great things, his track record is elite. Since 2002, Rick has taken 5 teams to the Sweet 16 or beyond -- a number only two other schools (Kansas and Duke) can match. Two of those teams made it to the Elite Eight, another to the Final Four. He's at least twice been one player (lost early to the NBA) from starting seasons with a squad favored to win it all. On and on we could go, but I'm as impressed with the job he's doing with this year's squad as I may be with any of his best, star-driven teams.
He's stop-gapped the point guard emergency with bouts of Mason and Abrams, while steadily bringing along Balbay. He's scrapped things that haven't worked, found new solutions to difficult problems on the fly, and managed to win 15 of 19 while sorting through it all. We're lucky to have him.
Links to-go. That's probably more than enough multi-paragraphed prose for one post, so I'll conclude with a few quick hits pointing at stuff worth reading:
- In what may be the most interesting/unique interview I've seen on a sports blog, T Kyle King chats with U.S. Congressman Jack Kingston about college football and his decision not to vote for the resolution honoring the Florida Gators as national champs. Nicely done, Kyle.
- Kansas Jayhawks blog Rock Chalk Talk has in recent months been impressively active and full of good content. The "Week 3 Big 12 Basketball Report" is up and well worth checking out for a conference-wide survey of hoops.
- While we're in the state, you can get a similarly excellent conference-wide rundown of hoops at Kansas State blog Bring On The Cats.
- Baseball World previews the #4-ranked Texas Longhorns baseball team, projecting a heavy team emphasis on pitching and defense for success.