In one of the more entertaining basketball games of the past few years, 39,000 fans watched the Texas Longhorns run away from the talented UNC Tar Heels in a 103-90 victory at JerryWorld. While this recap is technically supposed to analyze this game by itself, I'd prefer to look at this game in the larger picture of the overall season. We've talked a lot about how the ultimate goal is to get this talented roster playing to its potential by the end of the season. While today's game wasn't a total virtuoso performance--especially on the defensive end--Texas demonstrated a lot of the qualities that made this team a preseason favorite to reach the Final Four. With the exception of Jordan Hamilton, our best players shined under the spotlight of today's match-up and showcased the strengths of their respective talent sets. Negating another potential concern, Texas didn't show any stage fright and took it to the Heels from the tip-off until the final whistle. This didn't look like the team that sleepwalked their way through the the first half of games against some cupcakes. Not at all.
Along those same lines, one of the more fascinating parts of today's victory represents its validation of the significant steps taken forward by J'Covan Brown and Avery Bradley. The calm, cool, and collected performances from the two freshmen stand in stark contrast to their out-of-control (Brown) and tepid (Bradley) offensive performances from earlier in the season. Brown and Bradley each poured in over 20 points today, and both of them could have easily gone for 25 apiece. Unfortunately, as we'll discuss in detail below, Jordan Hamilton had perhaps his worst game of the season and represents the current enigma on the roster.
After the jump, I'll provide a quick recap of the game before breaking down some of the individual efforts...this was a lot of fun.
Game Recap: Despite coming out of the gate with a lot of gusto, Texas started off cold from the field and fell into an early 8-4 hole at the first TV timeout. Starting off 2-9 from the field, Texas--and especially Avery Bradley--missed some open looks, leading some fans to immediately speculate that the potential depth perception issues might cause problems today for the 'Horns. Buoyed by a spark from J'Covan Brown off the bench, Texas corrected its shooting woes and started killing the Tar Heels on the offensive glass, which continued for the rest of the game. In one of the more remarkable stats from today's game, Texas had TWENTY-SIX offensive rebounds that led to 27 second-chance points. Leading into the final TV timeout, the first half turned into an up-tempo, see-saw battle between two highly-talented teams. I got several text-messages during the game admiring the talent of both teams, and the athleticism, length, and (insert Jay Bilas made-up adjective here) for both rosters was pretty remarkable.
With 2:43 left in the first half, the Horns were up 41-37, but then ran away from UNC during one of their best stretches of basketball of this season. During a 13-4 run to close the first half--since when does THAT happen--Texas grabbed five offensive rebounds, forced three turnovers, and got an unexpected line-drive 3-pointer from Gary Johnson. In one of the more memorable plays of the season, Avery Bradley stole an inbounds pass with 2 seconds left and laid it in right before the final buzzer. Despite facing the formidable frontcourt of UNC, Texas outscored the Tar Heels 32-20 in the paint and appeared poised to blow the game wide open.
At the start of the second half, it appeared that was exactly what was going to happen. After a few quick baskets, Texas pushed its lead out to 65-48 and looked to be in complete control of the game. Despite making some headway into the big lead, UNC couldnt get within closer than 8 points, as Texas always was able to respond. Then, after Rick Barnes took out Damion James and Dexter Pittman, UNC went on a quick 5-0 run to cut the lead down to 6. The two seniors were immediately inserted back into the game. After another UNC basket, Texas was only up 82-78 and appeared to be holding on for dear life with 7:00 to go. During the middle stretch of the second half, Texas gave up a ton of easy looks to the Tar Heels, who shot nearly 60% in the second half to keep the game close. I would love to see one of GoBR's patented columns over the defensive breakdowns in the second half.
Faced with true adversity against a top-flight opponent for the first time this season, the veteran leadership of Texas helped salt the game away. Over the next three minutes, Pittman and James scored 9 of our next 11 points to put us up 93-82. The defense was bailed out by several silly UNC turnovers, but, when it mattered most, they were able to hold UNC to 7 points from the 7:00 mark until the 2:00 mark. Closing the game in style, Texas got a final rim-rocking dunk from Sexy Dexy to push the final margin to 103-90.
The outcome was: invigorating. Win or lose, that was a fun game to watch. Both teams were incredibly talented, played hard, and pushed the tempo to an incredible pace. Players for both teams often resorted to putting their hands on their knees in trying to catch a breather during the natural breaks in the game. But, regardless of the aesthetic value of the game, this was a true statement from the Texas Longhorns to the college basketball world. Four years ago, in their first true test of the season, second-ranked Texas was humiliated by the Duke Blue Devils in the infamous "black jersey" game. Regardless of how much this team can still improve--and it's quite a bit--they passed their first true test with flying colors.
Additionally, what a difference a year makes. We just threw down 103 points on North Carolina and have scored over 100 points in three of our last four games. And, as we'll discuss below, Texas *still* hasn't gotten consistent outside shooting. This team is piling up incredible amounts of points and has been able to use their incredible depth and rapid substitution rates to make the necessary adjustments. After today, is anyone still pontificating over our offensive woes from last year?
Stat of the Game: TWENTY SIX offensive rebounds: Despite facing a UNC team chock full of 6-10 robots, Texas grabbed a staggering 26 offensive rebounds during the game. In only 26 minutes, Dexter Pittman grabbed 12 offensive rebounds (15 total) to complement--and largely fuel--his 23 point night. Since I'm going to shortchange him in the next section, I want to highlight Sexy Dexy's line. Against his best competition of the season, Sexy Dex went 23-15 today, along with 2 highlight reel blocks. Pittman's 12 offensive boards were three more than UNC's entire team put together. But Dexy wasn't the only Longhorn who assisted on the offensive glass. Texas got offensive rebounds from EIGHT different players tonight, which is simply a staggering number and accurately reflects the effort from the team today.
The offensive MVP was: J'Covan Brown. Some of you may quibble with this decision, and I admit that it's a bit of a stretch. Unlike some of Texas' previous games where tons of players scored in double-digits, today's game was largely our best players putting the team on their back. Brown, James, Pittman, and Avery Bradley each went over 20 points tonight, while no one else scored more than 25 points. James and Pittman did exactly what we've come to expect them to do, as the two seniors dominated the paint, threw down 13 combined dunks and layups, and combined to make 14 free throws. That's exactly what we want/need them to do. Bradley struggled a bit with his shot, but still finished with 20 points and his usual assortment of rebounds, steals, and assists--he's a keeper.
The reason I'm giving this to J'Covan is because he filled a great void for the team today. With Balbay struggling, Ward injured, and Lucas only being allowed to dip his toes in the water today, Brown stepped up with his best performance of the season. J'Covan did a little bit of everything today. J'Covan nailed 3 three-pointers (with his bunny hop release), grabbed 5 rebounds, and delivered some beautiful passes to streaking teammates. Most importantly, he only turned the ball over twice today, which demonstrates his tremendous growth over the first month of the season. When he plays like he did today, he renders the deficiencies of Balbay and Lucas pretty much irrelevant. Here's to hoping he keeps it up.
The defensive MVP was: Our rebounding effort. This might also be a controversial decision, but I can't find myself to give this award to any of the individual players. Texas' overall dominance on the glass limited UNC to only 11 second-chance points and only 8 fast break points. By getting second and third opportunities on the offensive end--while gobbling up the UNC misses--Texas was able to prevent the UNC racehorses from dominating the game in transition. While I keep bringing it up, it was really, really impressive to watch this team outwork UNC on the glass.
The Curious Case of Jordan Hamilton: Currently the most enigmatic player on the roster, Jordan Hamilton laid a complete egg today. I think the best way to summarize his game today compared to Bradley's came from PB in the game thread.
Jordan...is a truly elite talent. Avery Bradley is a rarely special basketball player.
Jordan had several facepalm moments today, including several ill-advised drives to the basket. Overall, in only 17 minutes, he went 2-10 from the field and turned the ball over twice. I'm starting to think that developing Hamilton is going to become Rick Barnes' biggest challenge for the rest of the season. Without Hamilton being able to lock down the SF spot, we have to start juggling three-guard lineups, mixing in Gary Johnson, or sliding Damion James down to the spot. I drank the Jordan Hamilton Kool-aid during the off-season, and I've been very disappointed with his performance so far.
A Method to the Dexy Substitution Madness?: Everyone has been wondering whether or not Dexy's stamina would hold up in big games. A cursory glance at the box score would only show that he played 27 minutes. What the box score doesn't show is that Dexter played the last 7:41 of today's game. In taking a closer look at Barnes' substitutions today, it appears that the strategy for Dexter involves using TV timeouts to give Dexter extra rest at selected moments.
Check out his substitutions today:
As you can see, Dexter was subbed in immediately after most of the automatic TV timeouts. Dexter was visibly winded at several points in the game today, but I think his substitution pattern allowed him to play the final 7:41. Kudos to Barnes for making this work.
Mason Watch: I gotta give PB some props here. While I was freaking out over Mason being a starter and getting huge minutes in early season games, he has maintained the "wait-and-see" approach. Today proved the prudence of his patience. Mason got a season-low 7 minutes today, which was--by far--his lowest total of the season.
Final Thoughts: Today was a statement game for a team on the rise. While it helps validate the early season ranking and optimism from the team, it must only be analyzed for what it encompasses--one game. Texas has no time to celebrate this big win, as they must immediately prepare for Tuesday Night's showdown against the Michigan State Spartans. I cannot, cannot, cannot give a higher endorsement for the game against Michigan State. If you are a student, do whatever it takes to attend the game. If you want, come find me in the North O-Zone.
We'll know more about this team in 72 hours, but, right now, you have to feel pretty damn good about this basketball team. They may not get the campus hype until we get done with our business in Pasadena, but, after today's win, they officially deserve it.