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2008-2009 Longhorns Good But Never Great

The Texas Longhorns are done for the season. But why? My first reaction at the end of last night’s game was the same as many of yours—blame the refs. We got robbed! Duke got all the calls, all the bounces, all the breaks, etc. Upon further reflection, whistles were not the reason that we lost in the second round to Duke. In fact, I thought the Duke loss was a near perfect manifestation of the entire season.

The same questions we had about this team before the season were never answered. The same warts that we saw in conference play appeared again in Greensboro. And the same players basically played the same way in the NCAA tournament that they had all season.

I don’t want this to be an overly negative post and I promise another post with all the positive things this team did over the course of the season. But I think it is important to single out the reasons why this Texas team was good but never great.

No Reliable Point Guard
Sure, Dogus Balbay came on late in the season and showed on many occasions that he could lead the team. But in pressure situations, the lack of true point guard who could pressure a defense with passing and scoring hurt the ‘Horns. How many times this year did you write in the comment section that you missed DJ Augustin? How many times did you and your fellow basketball lovers curiously question where this team would be had Augustin elected to stay another year? I know that I did plenty of times just as I did after TJ Ford left after his sophomore year.

Rick Barnes started the year with AJ Abrams at the point but that experiment was over before the team returned from Maui. Abrams could not create off the dribble for others and is much better in catch-and-shoot situations than firing off the dribble. Then, we put the ball in Justin Mason’s hands. This worked fine, for the most part, and Mason even filled up the stat sheet with five, six, and seven assist games against just a turnover or two for the better part of the middle of the season. But Mason’s defense began to slip and opponents began to figure out that Justin couldn’t hit the backboard, let alone sink a jumper, from more than 15 feet. So, the Mason era ended and Dogus Balbay took over.

Again, Texas fans were struck with instant positive results. Dogus is incredibly quick off the dribble, a remarkable athlete, and a more than capable passer with either hand. Unfortunately, Dogus was not a pass first-shoot second leader like he had been billed since his arrival in Austin. Balbay is a past-first, drive-second, pass-third, shoot-never point guard. As opponents figured out that Balbay had never seen one of his jumpers fall through the hoop, a one man zone became the defense of choice for Big XII opponents down the stretch. Never was this more apparent than at Oklahoma State when Terrel Harris began to double team Dexter Pittman in the post even when his man, Balbay, had the ball at the top of the key.

Our point guard by committee, like our team, was serviceable but never great. It could be argued that a fourth part of this committee was forced to emerge last night as Varez Ward more than earned his playing time with a gutty, attack the basket 16 point performance over and around the slower Duke defenders. I would remiss unless I pointed out that the need for Ward to assume the ball handling duties full-time would not have been needed if it wasn’t for the below average performance by Balbay. Take a look at his line last night: 32 minutes, 2 points, 3 rebounds, 0 assists and 4 turnovers. It is hard to be a dynamic offensive team when your point guard plays nearly the entire game and fails to record a single assist.

No Perimeter Shooting
Other than AJ, this team can’t shoot from outside the lane. Please don’t point out Damion James’ occasional three-pointer or Gary Johnson’s 16 foot jumper. Fool’s gold, both of them. Last night, Texas shot 3-of-12 from behind the arc. On the season, Texas shot 32.8% from three, good for 234th best in the country (Ken Pomeroy). Of 344 Division I teams, shot ranked 321st in the country in percentage of points scored from behind the arc. Texas got just 19% of all points from deep.

I am not advocating that Texas needed to be a three point shooting team. They did not. Before the season, the strength of this team appeared to be Dexter Pittman, Gary Johnson, Alexis Wangmene, and Damion James scoring in the paint. Texas did, however, need to present at least the threat of an outside shot so that those players wouldn’t be defended with two players before they got the ball and three players after.

Texas has never been a great team at feeding the post. To me, this is a weakness that has been present throughout the Rick Barnes era. This year, though, the problem wasn’t the skill of actually feeding the post as much as it was that there was little to no room to do so. If defenders aren’t worried about getting torched by perimeter jumpers, they naturally sag off the offensive player to both encourage long jump shots and to more easily eliminate driving angles. That is exactly what happened this season as defenses would have paid every Texas perimeter player, except AJ Abrams, to shoot jumps shots.

Shaky Free Throw Shooting
Texas shot 16-of-25 (64%) from the free throw stripe against Duke. Duke shot 21-of-27 (78%) from the free throw stripe against Texas. Also, the Longhorns were just 8-of-14 (57%) in the second half. Imagine how different this game would have been had Texas sank a few more free throws. Imagine how many close games would have gone differently had Texas not shot just 66.8% from the line as a team. Would we have won another conference game, finished alone in fourth in the Big XII, and maybe earned a better seed in the NCAAs? Maybe. We probably would have defeated Duke in their own backyard and been preparing for a rematch with Villanova as I write this. Regardless of how the calls went down the stretch, the team that took advantage of their trips to the line is still in the tournament while the team that left points at the stripe has been eliminated.

No Go-to Scorer
At one point early in the season, I wrote that we didn’t have a go-to scorer like Augustin, Durant, Tucker, or Ford. I questioned where Barnes would go in a final possession with the game on the line—AJ on the baseline or James in the high post or Dexter on the low block or our point guard of the evening off the dribble. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now.

Down two last night to Duke, Damion James called for, received, and shot a baseline three pointer that would have given Texas a one point lead with less than a minute to go. It was a good shot, but was it the best shot? Was a James jump shot our go-to-play? Abrams is certainly our most consistent and best shooter but he has been blanketed all of 2009 and cannot create his own shot. Dexter is an offensive force but can’t score unless he is somehow fed the ball. Balbay or Ward off the dribble are options as well. The point is that, unlike in previous seasons with a future NBA lottery pick in burnt orange, Texas lacked a go to player all season long.

Disappearance of Connor Atchley and Justin Mason
Did DJ Augustin really make that big a difference in the games of these two upperclassmen? Last night, Connor played six minutes, failed to score a single point in his final game as a Longhorn, and grabbed just one rebound. Justin Mason wasn’t much better (22 minutes, three points, one rebound, two assists, and two turnovers), and Barnes had so little confidence in him that he chose to leave Balbay in the game after moving Ward to the point, even though Dogus was not a threat to score at all.

Connor was in Austin for five years and has a remarkable junior season, but his regression this season was a big reason for the offensive stagnation, as were Mason’s struggles on both ends of the court.

All in all, this was a good but never great basketball team. The loss of Alexis Wangmene hurt on both ends, the inability to sink perimeter jump shots killed our offensive spacing, and the need to go small with three guards gave back some of our ability to rebound and defend at an elite level. As I wrote last night, I am proud of this team. They were certainly flawed in many areas but fought hard all season long and came within a bounce or two of the Sweet 16.

Future posts will look at the positives from the 2008-09 campaign, Damion James’ NBA decision, and in addition to the incoming freshman and Jai Lucas, what our existing players need to improve on to take this team back to the Final Four.