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UT Hoops Roundtable: Season Starters

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Txtwstr7: It's been a while since we've talked hoops.  I thought we could hold off on another roundtable until closer to tip-off, but the news trickling out over the probable starting line-up has forced our hand.  It appears that things aren't exactly as we thought, and many Longhorns fans might need to recalibrate their expectations over which players we will see trotting onto the floor during the early non-conference season.   Based on the heavy circulated tweets by Andy Katz, it appears that the starting line-up will be Ward-Bradley-Mason-James-Pittman.  Naturally, this means that J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton-both presumed starters-will open the season on the bench.  This is pretty jarring and its full ramifications need to be fleshed out.

I can't say I'm entirely surprised by the news.  After reading Rick Barnes' media transcript from a few weeks ago, I planned on writing this week's post about how there might be a set plan to heavily utilize the seniors and returning players at the beginning of the season while the youngsters "earn their keep."  Here were the quotes that sounded off these warning bells:

On the seniors: We've had seniors before, but it's been a while since we have had a senior class. Damion (James), Dexter (Pittman), Justin (Mason), and Matt (Hill) have played a lot of basketball since they have been here, and we are really pleased with the leadership and the way they have embraced the younger players. The younger players have embraced them, too. They are doing well in terms of knowing that these seniors have been through it. Those seniors know what it takes to be on the court, and they lead by example. As talented as some of these younger guys are, they are learning that it takes more than talent, and they are learning that the work ethic that goes in is important. I'm excited about the way the older guys have led the team up until this point.

On the younger players: When younger players come into the program, they don't understand that there are only 200 minutes in a game. And they don't understand because their whole life they've played, and that has never been something that they had to think about. But now they are here and there is no doubt they are going to have to think about it. They will realize that if they get 10 to 12 minutes a game, that's an accomplishment on a team that is talented. The goal for them should be to play at the highest level they can play. It is about competition. Every single day, they are going to get a chance to compete to earn the playing time that they get. Our program has always been based on making improvement every single day and putting the team before one's self. As long as they are true to those things, they are going to play.

On youth slowing the team down: I don't know if it will slow us down because of the experience we have coming back. But those younger guys are going to have a learning curve. But what I was alluding to earlier is that we have a senior class. So we are going to move forward with the seniors leading and hopefully that learning curve will be a little bit quicker. I can't remember the last time we've had a senior class. We've had seniors, but the last time we had four at one time was 2004.

While I may not have been entirely surprised, I'm still attempting to calibrate my level of disappointment.  I thought we might see more of Justin Mason than we expected, but I never thought he would supplant Jordan Hamilton in the starting line-up.  One of the lessons out of the 2006-7 season appeared to be that Rick Barnes wasn't afraid to play freshmen.  In fact, that season, he played four freshmen on the floor at the same time.  In retrospect, it must also be remembered that the roster necessitated playing that many freshmen.  KD and crew immediately started and logged heavy minutes partially because they were awesome, but also because the back end of the roster was flat-out terrible.

Coming into this season, I think most of us expected that Barnes would play "the best five," but I dont think that's the case with the alleged starting line-up.  Before we go any further, I think we need to categorically separate the two changes to the presumed line-up.  Ward playing ahead of J'Covan Brown is one thing; Hamilton sitting on the bench in favor of Mason is another. 

During the first Roundtable, I picked Varez as my "surprise" player this year, as he got more minutes and performed better than I think most fans remembered.  I'm actually intrigued to watch him at the PG spot.  I'm not intrigued to watch another season of Justin Mason in a three-guard line-up, especially when Jordan Hamilton is so perfectly suited to the position.  During the first Roundtable, I brought up some concerns over the SF position:

As much as I trust Barnes, I'm a little concerned about what he'll do with the back-up minutes at the SF spot.  If Shawn Williams gets redshirted, we really don't have any wing to play the 3 when Jordan Hamilton is on the bench.  My concern is that the lion's share of these minutes will go to Justin Mason or Damion James.  James floundered at the position last year--at least, relative to expectations--and Justin Mason shouldn't play much at all.  It's tough to see how far Mason has missed our initial expectations, but, at this point, he is what he is.

Of course, instead of taking backup minutes at the SF spot, Mason is now the presumed starter.  This immediately ruins the perfect concoction of the Hyperized offensive system and creates new concerns over our perimeter shooting.  I understand Rick's desire to make the youngsters "earn" their playing time, but I don't think it should come at the expense of what makes the most sense for this team moving forward.  I don't think any Texas fan expects Justin Mason to start a game in March, which raises the question of why he should be starting games in November.    In fact, this news raises several key questions.

First and foremost, it raises the question of whether it is better to play more experienced players with lower upside at the beginning of the season to let the younger players get their feet wet.  With our insanely difficult non-conference schedule, I think I can understand the arguments both ways.  However, it must be reinforced that every minute that Justin Mason plays against MSU/UNC/UCONN is a minute taken away from Jordan Hamilton's development.  Similarly, every minute that J'Covan Brown spends on the bench against these elite teams lessens the chance that he will be prepared for crunch-time minutes in an Elite Eight matchup.  That's not an insignificant consideration, in my opinion.

Second, it makes me wonder how much stock we should put into the "starter" label.  Several years ago, we watched Dion Dowell "start" several games, then trot back to the bench and stay there.   I think everyone will agree that who finishes a game is more important than who starts a game.  With Mason's-and Balbay's-liabilities at the free throw line, the argument can be made that it makes the most sense to distribute their minutes closer to the beginning of each half.  This helps juggle the minutes, keeps the freshmen fresh, and prevents having 55% FT shooters in the game when they would become a liability.  Additionally, by letting Mason and Ward have the "starter" tag, it likely helps assuage any rough feelings over their presumed lack of minutes.

This whole situation has my head spinning a bit...what say you, PB?

PB:  You're right that in 2006-07 we learned that Rick Barnes will play freshmen. But that was not the only thing we learned that year. We also learned that freshmen -- even ones who are going to be lottery picks -- take some time to get going generally, and on defense in particular.

I look at the likely starting five you're worried about and see three seniors with strength and an ability to defend, alongside two underclassmen, both of whom are outstanding defenders. I'm sure the other stuff that you discussed is in play, as well, but among all the factors that are likely at work here, this comes down to defense. It's not only the most complete explanation, but I see it as an entirely sensible one. It'll be terrific if we're getting great offensive play from Hamilton and Brown when we match up in the early going with Michigan State, UNC, and UConn, but we won't beat any of them if they're giving it back on the other end. You don't beat those teams unless you are physical and defensively excellent.

All of which means several things to me. First, if Hamilton and Brown are defending at a level good enough to play in a game like that, they will play and play a lot. Second, if they are defending comparably to Mason and Ward, then both of those players will only remain starters to the extent that their offensive contributions permit. This will work both ways: the freshmen will have to show they can defend well enough to be the starters, and the incumbents will have to play offensively well enough to keep their jobs. In the interim, tie goes to the better defenders. Jordan, J'Covan: meet Rick.

Third, from everything we're hearing, these seniors have taken a very active leadership role with this team. A healthy, welcome one. One of the questions we considered during our last discussion was chemistry and minutes and keeping it all together; among the other things said, first and foremost we said that we trusted Rick Barnes completely in this regard. If he thinks Justin Mason needs to open the season as the starter, not only do I trust that his reasoning is sound, but I trust that he won't be afraid to change if/when change needs to be made, and, what's more, I trust that Mason and the other seniors leadership means that not only won't be a problem for the players -- not for Mason, nor for anyone else.

Fourth, I want Texas opening the game with great defense and, on the other side, heavy-heavy doses of Pittman while he's freshest. Mason had a really tough year last year, but assuming he's healthy and can give us plus defense again, I'm comfortable with him fitting that role for us on offense. Moreover, it's pretty titillating thinking about Brown and Hamilton checking in as a second wave and different offensive look for the opposition. Barnes will be free to mix and match in a million different ways this year. Those two off the bench won't be a problem.

And finally, I'm a huge believer in not getting too bogged down in what happens between November and the end of January, to the extent that the process is building towards hitting your stride by the back half of conference play. By that time, you need to know who your "best five" will be, what your (40-minute) identity will be, and how all the pieces fit together. What happens before February only matters to the extent that it speaks to that. Even, to some degree, the results. I'd like for Texas to earn a #1 seed, but I'd be just fine with a #4 or better. But you know what? The fact is that this team's goal is Indianapolis, and they're gonna have to beat an over-matched opening round opponent and then three quality teams, whether the 'Horns are the #1 or a #5 seed. They either will or they won't, based on if the team has put itself together right by February; what happens before then won't matter a bit.