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Texas Uses Second-Half Surge to Top Pitt

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Game Recap: After the first four games of the season, the Longhorns have clearly written a script they are bound and determined to follow -- get a lead early, give it up with poor offensive play in the last minutes of the first half and equally poor recognition closing out on shooters, then surge past the tired opponent in the second half for an easy win. It works now, but there's an expiration date on such play and that expiration date is the start of the difficult non-conference schedule that includes North Carolina, UConn, MIchigan State, and Arkansas.

Within that script, the lack of recognition of three-point shooters is most disturbing. Lamar Patterson hit two three pointers late in the half to bring Pittsburgh back in the game and it was Damion James who was lacking recognition, a major mistake for a senior who should know better.

In the second half, the Longhorns played even with the Panthers for five minutes or more before a 14-3 run put Pittsburgh away. Defense fueled the surge, as the Longhorns got out in transition and finished around the rim, with two jumpers, one a three pointer, from Jordan Hamilton helping Texas gain separation. As Pittsburgh ran out of gas, Rick Barnes' club extended the lead unti the final score resembled a blowout at 78-62, even though Texas only won about 15 minutes of the game handily.

The outcome was: Acceptable. It appears that Rick Barnes has three primary objectives at this point in the season -- wear down teams by bringing in waves of fresh players, experiment with lineup combinations to find what works, and hold players accountable for mental mistakes on the offensive or defensive end. The first objective has been extremely successful, as neither of the four teams Texas has played to this point in the season have been able to keep up with more than 30 minutes or so. Pitt tired so much at the end of the game they were missing open jumpers and committing costly turnovers, leadng to easy Texas baskets. The accountability aspect led to Jordan Hamilton playing only 11 minutes, a paltry number when compared to the 17 minutes and two points provided by Justin Mason.

Overall, the result was merely acceptable because of the offensive struggles that kept Pittsburgh in the game far longer than necessary, but until Texas can consistently feed Pittman in the post, J'Covan Brown becomes more comfortable and Jordan Hamilton can fulfill the wishes of Rick Barnes offensively and defensively, this team will probably struggle on the offensive end at times. In some ways, the fact that the team has so much room to grow is cause for considerable confidence going forward, as the win over a solid Pittsburgh team demonstrates that this is already a top-10 team nationally with more room to grow than any other team as highly ranked, with the possible exception of Kentucky.

Stat of the game: 14-24 (58.3%) from the free-throw line. In about a week or two, this is going to start sounding like a broken record -- Texas struggles at the charity stripe and will no doubt continue to do so throughout the season. The biggest concern is that Dexter Pittman and Damion James, who will likely lead the Longhorns in attempts, no not look like they will be able to hit in the 70% range. In fact, it's likely that the only two good free-throw shooters on the team will be J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton, with rampant inconsistency from everyone else. Ulimately, the defense will probably have to make up for the lost points by forcing more turnovers and securing defensive rebounds, as the offense will no doubt continue to suffer through stretches of ineffectiveness.

The Offensive MVP was: Damion James. For James, the key offensively is to stay within himself. During the poor stretch at the end of the first half when the Longhorns failed to score for 4:44, a large part of the problem was the lineup on the floor, but poor selection by James was a major part of the problem, as he forced several long, difficult jumpers. Even though he's one of the best offensive weapons for Texas, he must play within himself -- that means spot-up three pointers and lay ups around the rim, with a few in-rhythm jump shots sprinkled in. For most of the game, James did that, converting on 8-13 shots, including 2-4 three pointers for 20 points to lead the team, and when he does plays within himself, he provides the Longhorns with an incredible boost.

The Defensive MVP was: Dogus Balbay. I've never particularly considered myself an advocate of Balbay, but this game may have converted me. Balbay finished the game with eight rebounds, second on the team to Damion James, while picking up two steals according to the ESPN box score. Those two steals sell Balbay's effort defensively completely short, as he deflected numerous passes and played lockdown man-to-man defense for the entire 28 minutes he played. It's simply spectacular right now to see him hound opponents on the perimeter and deflect the ball so often on passes or making it difficult to even dribble the ball. The best offense for Texas this season will remain a good defense and with his rebounding ablity for a guard and elite on-ball defense, Balbay, whatever his limitations as a shooter offensively, will be a major catalyst for the offense beginning on the defensive end.

A few more thoughts:

  • Rick Barnes is clearly sending a message to Jordan Hamilton right now -- if you continue to lose your man on defense by ball watching and if you continue to look off Dexter Pittman, you won't play much. Hamilton has had probably five to ten opportunities to enter the post this season, and unless he did so against UC-Irvine in the game I wasn't able to watch, he hasn't yet entered the ball once. Defensively, it's a lack of focus right now that is causing the problems and frankly, Hamilton probably doesn't have much experience exerting the amount of focus now required on the defensive end. Offensively, though he does find his open teammates, he's still hunting his shots and even the two that he hit against Pittsburgh were pretty ill-advised -- a contested jumper and a three pointer he made while Dexter Pittman was posting up in front of him calling for the ball. At some point he needs to play more to gain experience because the Longhorns desperately need his scoring ability, the Rick Barnes obviously has a point to make before Hamilton gets any minutes he doesn't earn.
  • J'Covan Brown has been impressive defensively, but still needs to work on fighting through screens, as he often got hung up on them against Pittsburgh, forcing a poor switch or getting his big man into trouble with dribble penetration.
  • Justin Mason needs to get aggressive offensively or there is no reason for him to be out there. As it is, pairing him with Dogus Balbay is a recipe for disaster, as the defense can sag into the paint without worrying about Mason hitting any long jumpers. Defensively, he's allowed way too much dribble penetration and although there is more reason to play him now with Varez Ward out, he just doesn't provide anything more than Avery Bradley, Brown, or Balbay. The regression in his game is almost sad to see.
  • Dexter Pittman needs to keep himself out of foul trouble. Against Pittsburgh, the fouls were mostly of the body control variety where he had trouble keeping himself from knocking into people. In fairness to Big Dex, some of the fouls were pretty marginal in a game that was physical overall, but the bottom line is that he needs to adjust to how the officials are calling the game because no amount of complaining about the calls will keep him from having to head to the bench. The Longhorns may be having trouble getting him the ball in the post, but he's still the major offensive weapon and needs to stay out there.
  • Texas did much better against Pittsburgh avoiding turnovers with only 10 on the game, but players who lower usage rates like Alexis Wangmene and Damion James need to avoid the costly mistakes, as they combined for five turnovers on their own, half of the team total. For James, he needs to make better decisions with the ball, a problem that plagued him last season and Wangmene needs to hold onto the ball better.
  • If Wangmene is going to be the replacement for Pittman when the big fella gets in foul trouble, Wing Man needs to stay out of it as well, as he committed several careless fouls -- he just dosn't quite understand right now how much contact is acceptable and the foul against Gary McGhee that led to a three-point play was unacceptable. Either foul the guy hard or don't foul at all -- any effort in between leads to And 1 situations.