Rick Barnes may have outdone himself a little bit this year with the non-conference scheduling, adding a late January game against UCONN in the middle of the brutal Big 12 season. Though Texas was as impressive in its 15th win of the season--over Colorado in the Big 12 opener--as it largely had been throughout its first 14 of the season (over non-conference opponents), win 16 over Iowa State came a little less easily, and Texas needed a furious rally and overtime to pick up win 17 over Texas A&M. Two days later in Manhattan, Texas looked absolutely exhausted throughout its loss to Kansas State. That was just the fourth Big 12 game of the year.
As big a fan as most of us are of Barnes' aggressive, challenge-seeking non-conference scheduling, as we get ready to tip off this afternoon with UCONN, it's hard not to feel more than a little wary about the situation. Scheduling that challenges your team is generally a good thing; scheduling that wears your team out... less so. As strong as the Big 12 is generally, this year in particular the conference has turned out to be as strong as it's ever been top to bottom, raising the possibility that Rick Barnes may be experiencing a tinge of buyer's remorse about today's late January road trip.
Continue reading my pre-game thoughts after the jump, where you'll also find a Q&A with Andrew Porter from The UCONN Blog.
There's nothing Barnes can do about that now, and in any event, this is hardly a no-win situation; aside from the potential for the trip to further wear us out, this game is mostly characterized by positives. Barnes will take his show on the road to the East Coast for a nationally televised showcase game against a brand program, bolstering Texas' own now-national brand, and providing a nice indirect assist to recruiting. Likewise, a strong performance by the 'Horns today would strongly solidify their position as one of the Teams To Beat for a #1-seed in the NCAA Tournament; as a reputation game, a win at UCONN on national TV would provide a disproportionate amount of value. After last week, we could stand to turn in a performance that recaptured some of the recently lost media momentum.
Finally, and less abstractly, the win provides an excellent opportunity for Texas to regroup and recalibrate before the remaining three-quarters of conference play. This isn't the first time Barnes' team has hit something of a wall in January, and though playing UCONN today runs some risk of wearing out the team more still, the timing isn't quite as bad as it first appears. Most relevantly, the Horns will be competing on five days rest, and their next contest isn't until next Wednesday, at home against Texas Tech--a team the Longhorns match up very well against and shouldn't find themselves in a struggle to defeat.
Instead, this game's risk-reward variables relate to the offensive rut Texas finds itself in right now. The Horns' poor perimeter play and lack of motion fed right into A&M and Kansas State collapsing on the paint, triple-teaming Dexter Pittman, and leaving no close shot or lay up uncontested. There are counters to that kind of defensive lane-clogging--and the Horns have the personnel to execute them--but they struggled to find them. Well, if you know anything about UCONN's team, I don't have to tell you that they'll be just as physical, athletic and aggressive in the paint as were A&M and Kansas State, if not more so. In other words: if Texas takes the same tack against the Huskies as it did in its last two games, further frustration is guaranteed.
The reward, then, would be a positive, evolved offensive approach to attacking a collapsed defense, which if successful against UCONN provides strong evidence for believing Texas can achieve similar success against the best of the Big 12's bangers. So there is an opportunity today for Texas to take an important step forward in this regard, without having to do so in a game that will count in the conference standings. Among the things to watch closely today, the most important will be:
- Systematic, motion-filled offense. Barnes' haphazard screen game is effective in its own way, but its success is proportional to the personnel. TJ Ford and, to a slightly lesser degree DJ Augustin, were devastating using the same screen system that is less rewarding when executed by A.J. Abrams, Justin Mason, or one of Texas' freshman guards this year. Dogus Balbay is hot and cold with it, sometimes doing a terrific job utilizing the screens to create with penetration, attack the rim, or kick out, while at other times passively receiving the screens and/or partially stabbing the lane without purpose. Bradley could be tremendous in our screen/dribble-drive offense, but he's still learning how to make the most of it (and himself). All told, Barnes needs to do more with this group than send them out to inconsistently succeed running the screen offense. Plus, quite irrespective of whether or not they're capable of finding success in the perimeter-screen offense, Barnes this year has an ideal set of personnel to implement and execute a more systematic offense. We need to see more of that, and quickly, or Dexter Pittman's going to be as frustrated the rest of the season as he has been the past two games.
- Smart defense. Texas is capable of, and often does play, very strong defense, but too often we're not playing smart defense. We often overplay guys on the perimeter who won't beat us with a jumper, or spread ourselves too thin to play good help defense. Connecticut is quick and athletic, but they are not a good shooting team, and the Longhorns on defense need to be both situationally and spacially aware, conceding long jumpers where appropriate, denying penetration, and positioning themselves to make timely rotations.
- Defensive rebounding. Rather than say for the 19th time this season that our terrible free throw shooting team would really benefit from making more free throws, it seems to me time to talk about other areas where the team will have to be superior to compensate for the weakness making uncontested 15-footers. Today especially, the Horns will benefit enormously from a strong day clearing defensive rebounds. Even more so than the team that beat us on Monday, Connecticut is an athletic bunch that doesn't shoot well and secures a high percentage of their points via offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line. I want to see a rested Texas get back to good positioning, body-on-body blocking out, and a sense of urgency about going after and securing every missed shot.
Q&A With The UCONN Blog
PB: Do you have any sense for how Calhoun's leave of absence is affecting the team in the short-term? I mean, setting aside anything it means for the season at large and the program as a whole, what's your take on how the news Impacts the team (or doesn't) on Saturday?
Andrew Porter, The UCONN Blog: In theory, it really shouldn't. It is never nice to be missing your Hall of Fame coach, but UConn fans have gotten used to it over the years. Seemingly once every year, Calhoun gets sick and has to miss a game. Luckily, UConn has former Holy Cross head coach (and close Calhoun friend) George Blaney to fill in. Blaney typically does an admirable job and some fans even think that his calm demeanor helps the team, as the players can play without worrying about Calhoun's notoriously quick hook yanking them out of the game.
There are two X-factors though. One is preparation, When Calhoun has missed games before, he has really only missed the game itself, so he was in at least some practices leading up to the game/reviewing film/gameplanning. According to UConn, that is not the case here. The second X-factor is talent. Part of the reason that Blaney fills in quite nicely is that Calhoun's absences usually come against horrible teams. Blaney has not, in my memory, had to guide the team against anyone nearly as good as Texas, so we'll see how he steps up to the challenge.
PB: Is it me, or is this UCONN offensive team a compilation of tremendous athletes who aren't natural basketball players?
Andrew Porter, The UCONN Blog: It's not you and it is nothing new either, which is why I'm not sure its a terrible thing. Sure, the formula is not working this year, but UConn has become one of the country's elite programs without a whole lot of "natural basketball players." What UConn usually winds up getting is elite athletes with mediocre fundamental skills who use their athleticism to cover their inability to do things like shoot from beyond the arc. The problem this year is that instead of having mediocre skills, the vast majority of the team has next to no skills.
That's usually fixed with coaching, but after losing a lot of last year's Final Four team, coaching up the newcomers will take some time.
PB: Give us two things you'll be watching for that will tell you whether UCONN is playing well and engaged in a match up that's good for them.
Andrew Porter, The UCONN Blog: 1) Rebounding. This team seems to give up more offensive rebounds than any UConn team I can remember, despite typically being much bigger than their opponents. To beat a team at the talent level of Texas, UConn is going to have to control the boards and limit second chances. If they get beat on the boards, forget about it.
2) How Stanley Robinson plays. I almost listed point guard Kemba Walker here, as he has struggled mightily in his sophomore year, but Walker has started to show some signs of turning the corner and limiting his turnovers and terrible shot selection. Robinson however has made a career at UConn by being consistently inconsistent. He is the absolute definition of an athlete lacking in traditional basketball skills, but he has been improving. He'll probably play more than thirty minutes. In those thirty minutes he could either score 4 points and grab 3 rebounds, or score 24, get 11 boards and block 3 shots for good measure. If he is on and pulls off the rare (for him) trick of not disappearing when it matters, I think UConn has a chance. Without him, forget it.