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No. 2 Longhorns Finally Slay Spartans, Now 11-0

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Back to the top.  --PB--

Game Recap: The No. 2 Texas Longhorns outlasted their second straight ranked opponent, No. 9 Michigan State, to improve to 11-0 in front of a surprisingly boisterous mid-December Erwin Center crowd. Rick Barnes club is playing as well as any team in the country and already has two significant notches in their belt come tourney and seeding time.

The final score, 79-68, is not indicative of how close this game was. In fact, Texas trailed by as many as eight in the first half, three at half and by five at one point in the second. On this night, behind awesome second half defense, and on the shoulders of senior beast Damion James, Texas was not to be denied.

More after the jump...

The first twenty minutes were very physical and sloppy by both teams. Both Texas and Michigan State were in the double bonus and combined for 27 first half turnovers. Physical play and elite defenses contributed some to the disjointed first half; the rest of blame should fall on the refs, who interjected themselves too much into a high level college basketball game.

Dexter Pittman and Dogus Balbay were both saddled with two first half fouls and were forced to sit. Pittman also picked up two quick ones in the second and never re-entered the game after picking up with fourth with 12 minutes remaining. On the other hand, Dogus was able to say out of foul trouble in the second, and his on-the-ball defense was crucial to the Texas victory.

Because of the Pittman and Balbay foul trouble and the ineffectiveness of Alexis Wangmene, Clint Chapman, and Matt Hill off the bench, Barnes chose to play small for a lot of the first half. For long stretches, Damion James and Gary Johnson were playing the four and five spots along with three guards. Thankfully, MSU wasn't able to exploit the size mismatches, and Texas escaped to the locker room down just 37-34.

The second half was back and forth for the first ten minutes leading to a tie at 56. A three pointer from Jordan Hamilton gave the ‘Horns a lead they would never relinquish. Solid half-court defense, especially by Johnson and Balbay, led to easy fast breaks points and helped Texas build a double digit lead with just under four minutes left.

The outcome was: Exhilarating. Outside of a win over Kansas later this season, that was as good as it will get in Austin this season. Michigan State is a very, very good basketball team. The Spartans are picked to win the Big Ten, went to the national title game last season, and are coached by one of the best in the game. Last, after losing to the Spartans three years ago in Madison Square Garden, two years ago in Auburn Hills, and last season in Houston, this one is especially sweet.

Couple Saturday's win over North Carolina with tonight's victory and the Longhorns are very much on the national radar. And most exhilarating, it is only December and this team is going to be a lot better. I said it before the season and I'll repeat it now, anything short of a Final Four berth and I'll be disappointed.

Stats of the Game: Dexter Pittman 4 points and 1 rebound in 12 minutes.  On the surface, Dexter's line is hardly something to point toward. However, it is what happened despite Pittman being in foul trouble that is most impressive. Even without Pittman, Texas outrebounded Michigan State (32-31), shot 56% (!!) from the floor, and won points in the paint, 40-28. If you had told me that Dexter was only going to play 12 minutes, I probably would have not predicted a Texas win, and I certainly would not have predicted any of those stats.

What this tells me is my most important take away from this game: Texas is deep AND talented. Just playing 11 or 12 guys is nice, but if you're second string are no good, then what is the point? And having a star or two is great, but if you can't win without their contributions, then winning your conference or knocking off six straight in March is going to be nearly impossible. Texas has both - talent and depth. Our superstar center barely plays. What do we do? We go small, push the pace, and grind it out until we can get him back on the floor.

If in another circumstance Bradley or Balbay are in foul trouble, we'll roll out J'Covan Brown and Hamilton and move on. If James has an off night, then we'll play even more through Dexter and surround him with shooters.

The point is with this Texas team it is pick your poison as an opponent, and the Longhorns aren't going to beat themselves. This season, we have too many weapons to be taken down by an off shooting performance, foul trouble, or an injury. It is going to be one heck of a performance before Texas adds anything to the loss column.

The Offensive MVP was:  Damion James. DaMo came back to school to do exactly what did over the last four days-play big in the biggest games, show more skills facing the basket, and be a leader. Take a look at tonight's line: 23 points (10-of-18), 13 rebounds, two assists, a block, and a steal in 38 minutes. Add that to his output on Saturday, and Damion has gone for 48 points and 28 rebounds in 72 minutes against two of the best frontcourts in the country! Keep this up and first team All America is within reach as is the payday of being an NBA draft first rounder. What else? Oh yeah, Damion surpassed James Thomas and is now the all-time leading rebounder at the University of Texas!

The Defensive MVPs were: Dogus Balbay and Gary Johnson. Balbay basically ruined the night of the reigning Big 10 player of the year, Kalin Lucas. Balbay frustrated Lucas all game, holding him to just 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting from the floor. Dogus was credited with three steals but was even more disruptive than the stat sheet shows. He, along with all the Texas guards, fought through and around countless Michigan State ball and baseline screens. Sure, the MSU guards occasionally did gain an angle and got the ball into the lane. That is going to happen, though, as it is exactly what Michigan State works so hard to accomplish in their half-court sets. However, on the whole, Balbay was outstanding.

Johnson also gets a nod here. He showed exceptionally well on ball screens all night, and his two second half steals of Michigan State guards were crucial. They turned a seven point advantage into an 11 point lead with under four minutes left and essentially sealed the Texas victory.

Three Things:

(1) Jordan Hamilton the Enigma: The freshman sharpshooter from Los Angeles is by far the most confusing player on the team. He played smart and aggressive against Texas State and Texas-Pan Am and then played dumb and without focus against UNC. Tonight, Jordan comes out and launches a few ill-advised shots and also has trouble chasing smaller MSU guards on the defensive end. He appears to be heading toward a second straight disappointing performance against big-time competition.

Then, after settling down and playing within the flow of the offense, Hamilton nails four three-pointers and scores 14 points in 20 minutes. If we can get the bball IQ up a little and eliminate some of the crazy early shots, then Texas will be even more difficult to defend. Last, and he didn't do much of this tonight, but at 6-7 Hamilton should be able to help control the defensive glass, especially when James or Dexter try to block a shot.

(2) Free Throw Shooting Woes: We just suck at free throws. Tonight, Texas shot better from three (44%) than they did from the free throw stripe (42%). That is embarrassing, and it is going to cost the ‘Horns a game. I wish that I could point to just one or two players as the culprits but it is easier to single out the few who can sink free throws - J'Covan Brown and Gary Johnson are the only ones above 70%. Pittman and James are leaving easy points on the board; Balbay and Justin Mason are liabilities at the end of games; and Bradley and Hamilton have no excuses for being so poor from the line and such good jump shooters. Coming into the game, Texas was shooting just 62.5% as a team (311th best), and that percentage is going down. Remember, two year's ago when the biggest question mark about Memphis was their free throw shooting. Well, that same question is about to be asked about our Longhorns.

(3) Looking Ahead: The immediate road ahead is less bumpy. Texas now stands at 11-0 and should enter conference play at 14-0 after dispatching of Gardner Webb, A&M-Corpus Christi, and Arkansas. Big XII play starts with Colorado at home, Iowa State on the road, and A&M at home. Conference road games are always tough, and A&M is a top-30 team, but I don't see the ‘Horns dropping any of these three either. If I'm right, Texas would be 17-0 when they travel to Manhattan, Kansas to take on the Wildcats on January 18th for the ‘Horns' first ESPN ‘Big Monday' contest of the season.

Box Score

NEXT GAME: Home vs. Gardner Webb - Tuesday 12/29 5 pm Longhorns Sports Network