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Texas Rallies From Double Digit Deficit To Hold Off A&M

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Typically, when we write the game reviews, we spend 4 or 5 paragraphs capturing the overarching storyline of what happened in the game. And by typically, I mean every time. Until tonight. As only I could, I managed to let myself start wandering in the game recap portion of the review, and off I went.

And went, and went... by the time I'd reached the overtime period, it was clear I needed to just wrap up, publish, and save any further game discussion for another post. Believe it or not, I didn't get to much of the stuff I'd like to discuss in terms of player reviews and team analysis (though the recap I wound up writing is short on neither), in part because I paused a couple hours to Photoshop Dogus Balbay as Gandalf. 

Regardless, we're in multiple posts territory. I'll follow-up with a few further thoughts either at some point tomorrow, or in Monday's Texas Basketball Report.


Texas 72  A&M 67 (OT) GAME STORY  /  BOX SCORE

FIRST HALF:  Texas A&M scored the game's first 6 points, then extended that lead to 10-1 before Damion James's jumper stopped the bleeding, sending Texas into the first media timeout trailing by 7. The rest of the first half was not a basketball game. Sure, there were athletic men trying to dribble the ball and send it through a metal rim, but the competition looked in every other way more like a football game. Welcome to Big 12 conference play.

(This happens every year, by the way. I'm as used to it as anyone could possibly be, and even I'm appalled for at least half of the first brutal slugfest of the conference season. Same for Wiggo, who emailed at halftime from the Drum: "I'm in shock right now. Ugly, ugly." Even when you know it's coming, you're never fully prepared for it such that there's not an adjustment period of sheer disgust. More on this in later.)

If you're the sort who needs to blame someone for everything, point your finger at the Aggies for creating 2010's first basket-brawl. From the opening tip Texas A&M was, to use the appropriate metaphor, max blitzing on every play, and were every bit as physical as they were aggressive. Blame them for deflowering Big 12 brawling this season, if you like, but it was the right strategic play by Mark Turgeon, who I thought coached a very strong game throughout (more on this later, too).

Texas' frontcourt did not respond well to the Aggies' attacking, physical style of play, throughout the first half appearing dazed from the blows--most notably, as they struggled to finish shots around the rim. Damion James was held to 3 first half points, Dexter Pittman to just 2. The results weren't much better among Texas' backcourt starters. Avery Bradley (who coming into the game basically hadn't missed a shot in almost 2 weeks) was rudely ejected from his hot streak by the frenzied, physical style of play, not only struggling as a non-factor on offense, but also on the defensive end of the floor, where Texas put on a clinic in improper screen defense. Justin Mason was in foul trouble by the signging of the national anthem, Jordan Hamilton shot some thirty footers with thirty on the shot clock, and on and on and on.

The only Longhorn who seemed not the least bit phased by the style of play was J'Covan Brown, and his back-to-back scores inside the final minute of the half were the only reason Texas didn't trail by double-digits at the break. On most nights, Brown's first half stat line--8 points on 3-of-7 shooting, with 3 boards and 1 steal--wouldn't stand out as particularly brilliant, but relative to what was happening on the court, his cool, fluid play stood out, and prompted me to scribble in my notes during intermission: "Not a coincidence. This is the pace and style J'Covan loves." As the first half just got more and more unruly (and it did, as these tend to once the refs realize they can't call 200 fouls in a game), the contest more and more resembled a game of street ball, with bodies flying and the basketball getting kicked everywhere around the court except through the rim. J'Covan didn't mind it a bit; I think he pretty clearly prefers it.

SECOND HALF: The home team, top-ranked in the country, struggles a bit in the first half and trails at intermission. No big deal--happens all the time, and most times the home favorite roars out of the gate to open the second half, quickly catches up, and goes on to win. So Texas' 9-point deficit wasn't anything to panic about--especially considering it was the first Big 12 brawl of the season. Nothing had gone well for Texas in the first half; they would surely come out firing strong to open the second.

Except they didn't. On the half's opening possession, Damion James missed a long jumper, and on the other end the Aggies found Bryan Davis open in the lane for a score plus a foul. 32 seconds into the half and Texas was trailing by double-digits again and Justin Mason already had his 3rd fould of the game. Incredibly, he would not need even that long to pick up his 4th, which he picked up in transition defense running back from the thundering up-and-under dunk he'd just thrown down on the other end. 54 seconds into the half, A&M's up 10 again, and Mason's managed to get to 4 fouls. So much for the quick start.

The margin stayed around 10 through the first four minutes, as Texas stayed on pace to set the national single-game record for most shots missed from five feet and in, supplemented by the usual heaping serving of missed free throws. Nothing seemed to be going Texas' way, while A&M was getting a career game from Bryan Davis, who gave up a good 40 pounds to Dexter Pittman, but not an inch on the basketball court on Saturday night (17 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 steals). Even the energy from Damion James' three pointer to cut the lead down to 8 was quickly diffused by an answer on the other end by Donald Sloan.

But two possessions later James scored again, this time with the foul, converting the free throw to pull Texas within 7. Moments later, J'Covan Brown followed in his own miss. Then Damion James again, this time with a steal and a strong take to the rim, earning a pair of free throw attempts he converted to make it a three point game with 14:17 left.

The Aggies fought hard and continued coming up with enough plays to hold off Texas and preserve a lead. The only thing they couldn't do was stop Damion James, who just kept scoring and scoring, until his blow-by drive and dunk tied the game at 54 with 3:04 to play, the game's first tie since tip. James and Gary Johnson single-handedly brought the team back in the second half with big-time, must-have performances I thought neither player capable of prior to the season.

Even then, the Aggies refused to concede defeat, calling a 30-second timeout to regroup and then promptly answering James' game-tying jam with a bucket in the paint that also got a whistle. Hilariously, Rick Barnes had used the 30-second timeout to reassert Mason into the game for the first time since he'd sat with 4 fouls a minute into the half. On his first play back in, he fouled out. Meanwhile, A&M's 43% foul shooter swished his free throw attempt like Barry was written on the back of his jersey. One thing after another, all suggesting the same thing: this was not Texas's night.

Gary Johnson pulled Texas back within one, and took a 30-second timeout, subbing in Balbay and Wangmene for the defensive possession. Not so hilariously, the Aggies got the ball to Bryan Davis on the block, who easily drop-stepped by Wangmene for an easy lay up and another three point lead with 1:59 to play. But Avery Bradley quickly scored to cut the lead back to one, and Texas went back on defense needing a stop to have a shot at the win.

Among the litany of gaffes and general know-nothingness that dominated TV broadcast of the game, no single play more maddeningly illustrated the dumbfounding incompetency of last night's ESPNU announcing crew than the analysis, if you can call it that, of this Aggies possession. Coming out of a 30-second timeout with the ball and 1:11 left in the game, the Aggies inbounded and then ran a set play to the left side using Sloan as a decoy and sending B.J. Holmes to the three point line while Davis slid off the decoy to screen Holmes' man just as the pass headed to the Aggie guard. The play was executed well and as it was designed, giving Holmes a clean three point look that would have effectively won the game then and there for A&M. He missed it, Texas boarded it, and the color man--literally as he's watching a replay that shows purposeful screening for Holmes--prattles on about Holmes' poor shot selection.

My expectations for announcers really couldn't be much lower, so I assure you if I were lashing out for my own entertainment, rather than this play I'd select one from the countless examples provided over the evening. I bring it up here because tonight's was one of the more interesting games I've watched in a while. In part because Texas has destroyed most of its opponents this year, but even independent of that, it was a fascinating contest to analyze from the Longhorns fan perspective. (And now you know why the game recap portion of the review ballooned into a book chapter.) And you wouldn't know it if all you had was the transcripts from the pair calling the game for ESPN.

In the first place, the play that Mark Turgeon went with was nicely designed and the Aggies executed it well. That the announcer literally watched a replay of it and concluded "bad shot by Holmes" is a travesty. Had he half a brain, or a working pair of eyeballs, or whatever it is holding him back, he'd have noticed that the Aggies ran a set play out of the timeout, and it was a three point shot. From there, a dozen fascinating questions arise and are interesting to consider.

  1. Most important, what was Turgeon's rationale for that play call, and was it sound? Personally, I was impressed by his coaching all night, which surprised me because, first of all, I didn't think him much better than average heading into the game, and second, it's fairly uncommon that a coach will stand out to me (good or bad) this much in a single game. Regarding this play, while I'm not sure I would have gone the same way Turgeon did, neither do I think his choice "wrong." To the contrary, it was one of many examples of very thoughtful, analytical, strategic-minded in-game coaching.

    Spending some time thinking it over, I definitely appreciate what I've inferred Turgeon's rationale to have been. A three point shot does three things for A&M in this situation: first, a make pretty much ends the game; and second, Texas was not going to be defending in a manner particularly well-suited to anticipating off-ball screens meant to free up a 23-foot shot for B.J. Holmes. And third, it minimizes the risk of the Aggies' offensive possession ending with them in poor position to defend Texas in transition. Add 'em all up and while the play was designed to free a lower-percentage shot, it may well have been the higher-percentage play for the game circumstance. Which brings us to...
  2. The clock. A&M's possession began with 1:11 on the clock, also known as 71 seconds, or if you prefer, roughly two shot clocks worth of time. Out of his timeout, Turgeon ran a play to get a shot off rather quickly, as Holmes shot his three with just over a minute remaining, the miss of which Gary Johnson corralled with 59 seconds left. A lot of coaches in that situation will just have their point guard dribble for 30 seconds and then wildly penetrate as the shot clock nears expiration. Some players are better at pulling that off productively than others, but my general preference is for something more measured.

    That's what Turgeon was doing with this play: trying to control the variables best he could to maximize A&M's chances of winning. Here, a Holmes make just about locks up the game, but the quick miss on a set play, designed for a long shot, assured that the Aggies would have personnel back in transition, preventing one nightmare scenario (easy Texas bucket in transition after one or more Aggie players get caught up under their own goal on the A&M offensive possession). Additionally, the early shot assured A&M would get the ball back with a chance to win it, and the time to run a play, whether or not they succeeded in stopping Texas on the other end. There are several good ways one could run this end-game scenario, and many bad ways. Whether you would opt for a different sound strategy, I'm convinced Turgeon's was an excellent illustration of high-level strategic planning and thinking. Maybe that shouldn't be so noteworthy, but it caught my eye.
  3. And briefly, as a final question worth exploring if you're paying attention to the game in front of you: does the play being designed to give a long shot to Holmes change the analysis? On the one hand, he missed it, but as I'll explain shortly regarding Lucas-vs-Brown, that's of no value to this kind of analysis. Rather, I think the only factor that possibly weakens the strength of Turgeon's decision is the fact that Holmes was struggling badly with his shot all night. More likely, Turgeon weighed a handful of misses Saturday night against Holmes' 41% three point percentage on the larger sample of the season and decided (correctly, I think) it shouldn't change his conclusions.

In any case, those of you who were robbed of it on TV like I was, or sat with a dull group at the Drum, this post-game review is for you.

After rebounding the Holmes miss, Texas took a timeout, trailing by one with 53 seconds left in the game, with possession of the ball.

Subbing offense for defense, Barnes breaks from timeout with Jai Lucas in for Dogus Balbay. I disagreed with the personnel choice, and not because Lucas happened to fail so visibly. I both like Lucas as a player, like his skill set for certain end-game situations, and even understand why Barnes subbed Lucas as he did. But if you could see my notebook you'd see written and underlined "Lucas over Brown here??" That's what made subbing Lucas seem to me the wrong move: the alternative of Brown.

My read was that Barnes had decided on a set play that would go high-low with Gary Johnson and/or Dexter Pittman (depending on how A&M defended it), in which the point guard's primary responsibility is just to make the first pass and get out of the way. Looking at just that, I understand why you'd choose Lucas, generally, and over Brown, specifically. And I might not even argue with the decision if the score in the game is tied. But down one, as we were, the right play was Brown, and it's not close. Assuming you have enough faith in yourself as a coach to instruct Brown where and how to deliver the "pass-and-clear-out" portion of the play, in every other consideration you'd rather have Brown on the floor over Lucas:

  • Brown is a better rebounder. Everyone's a better rebounder than Lucas, but the real point here is that Brown is actually a threat to pull one in. Considering the importance of possession of a miss, I don't understand how you keep Brown off the floor in this situation, especially--especially--on a night when he has 10 boards for the game. Not a misprint.
  • Brown is a better defender/steal-creator. Depending on how Texas's possession unfolded, the five on the floor might be forced to transition immediately to defense, and in a situation where we'd rather go for a stop or a steal rather than foul. You want Brown out there for that.
  • Brown is a better penetrator. I'll save my explanation on this for below when we go through the play that actually unfolded.
  • Brown is a better scorer. Even if this were the only point, it should probably settle the issue because, again, we were down by a point. Considering all the hell that can break loose on the court, when crunch time comes and you need points to win, you have to have your best scorers on the floor. The set play breaks down, or a loose ball bounces into the point guard's hands--whatever the impromptu situation--particularly when you have a guy like J'Covan Brown, he's got to be out there.

    Brown isn't as mistake-cautious as you'd like him to be, even for a freshman. He's not as patient as you think might be better for the team sometimes. He sometimes appears genuinely to struggle with concepts of organized basketball. All conceded, and I have no doubt that by limiting Brown's role the past couple weeks, Rick's been doing what he thinks he needs to for the best interests of Brown and the team over the course of the season. I'm certain Rick Barnes knows more than I ever could about when J'Covan Brown needs to be parked on the bench for the betterment of all. I'm equally certain that, down by 1 with less than a minute to play, this situation wasn't one of them.

As it happened, while Rick Barnes was subbing Jai Lucas and drawing up a play for the paint, Mark Turgeon was designing a defense to deny the entry pass to get it all going. And here the reason for preferring Brown implicates his penetrating ability. Setting aside momentarily the play as it unfolded, there was a tradeoff to Barnes' substituting the safer player, Lucas: he communicated his intent. Turgeon was able to instruct his defense to play heavy deny, in part because the risk of doing so was substantially mitigated by having Lucas as the point. It's a substantially greater gamble if J'Covan Brown's the operator. And so it was that Jai Lucas wound up dribbling at the top of the key with nowhere to pass it, leading him to drive to the hole himself, where his shot was blocked and rebounded by Texas A&M. Maybe you can live with that in a tie game; tonight, Texas was still trailing by one.

Alas, like the Big XII Championship Game against Nebraska, tonight's football game at the Erwin Center had a happy ending, too. After Texas fouled A&M with 30 seconds remaining, Barnes was able to sub in Brown and Dash Harris made just one of his two free throws, give the 'Horns the ball back down just two. J'Covan Brown took the inbounds pass, headed up court, sliced smoothly into a crease in the lane, and floated an eight-footer through the rim, tying the game. Given the way it all played out, maybe my point-by-point explanation seems unnecessary, but even if Lucas had been able to deliver the initial entry pass and Texas had successfully run the play to pick up a go-ahead bucket, I would be talking about it in this space anyway.

In fact, the opposite may be true: the most significant contribution of the way the game events happened to play out is to introduce hindsight bias--through which Lucas having his shot blocked and Brown making the big bucket tend to be seen as a foregone conclusion, and the personnel decision obvious. This is a convenient way to discuss sports, but it is a normatively empty one to analyze them. Anyone reading this blog (and certainly reading down this far into this post) can think of a dozen examples of wrong decisions that wound up working anyway, and correct decisions that did not. Just as we reject as explanatory in those instances, "See? It worked!", neither can we do the same with Lucas's miss and Brown's make. They are cases in point; nothing less, nothing more.

Also worth mentioning: we almost won in regulation when Avery Bradley picked Donald Sloan's pocket on A&M's last possession. Sloan, who had played tremendous basketball all night, repeatedly making Avery Bradley look bad by driving past him, tried to do so one more time, this time for the win, but as he made a move to his left to try to beat his defender, he encountered a problem. The defender was Dogus Balbay.

Now, you can usually beat him in Scrabble. And you can assuredly beat him in H-O-R-S-E. But you do not beat Dogus Balbay off the dribble.

Stonewalled, Sloan was forced to change course and head back to the middle of the floor, and in doing so the basketball became vulnerable from his backside. Enter Avery Bradley, who deftly swiped it with about 5 seconds on the clock, rose for the game-winning lay up as two Aggies flew with him to try to block it, and... his finger roll swooped and looped down and back out of the cylinder.

Alexis Wangmene nearly put back the miss, but his lay up rattled in and out as well, giving Damion James a final follow-up try as time expired. It was that kind of night.

OVERTIME:  I've gone on much longer than I intended to already, so we'll wrap this up briefly. The Aggies were wearing out of energy, running short of fouls to give, and playing on the road, and though they got off to a solid start to overtime thanks to a Donald Sloan three and then a Donald Sloan three-point play, the deeper, more diversely talented Longhorns had found their sea legs in the second half and carried it through for five more minutes to pick up the win. Dogus Balbay was a defensive menace (including a blocked shot of Sloan that the Aggie guard fortuitously recovered and put in for the score plus one), while Damion James and Gary Johnson provided Texas with the offense.

If he wasn't before overtime began, Damion James was the Game MVP by the final buzzer. He scored a bucket on Texas' first possession with a strong drive to the rim, using his strength and athleticism to finish easily. He banked in a 17-foot jumper on the 'Horns second possession--a bit lucky, except that when the Aggies delivered Texas one last big blow, taking the lead on a put-back dunk with 1:19 left, James's three point attempt swished through, nothing but net, pushing Texas back up by two. The guy was on fire, and he beat the Aggies in the game's final 25 minutes the way he's been punishing opponents all year--with a staggeringly improved perimeter/jump-shooting game supplementing his stronger-than-ever over-the-rim game. 

Frankly, I was (happily) surprised to say a couple weeks ago that James has been playing like a deserved First Team All-American. Here we are in mid-January, and he's a legitimate candidate for National Player of the Year, as well. He's certainly not the favorite, but he's in a position to actually win it for himself on national TV. If James turns in performances like we've seen against Michigan State, UNC, and now A&M, against, say, UCONN and Kansas? He might well win it. He'll probably deserve it.