For the second straight year, dispatching of the Rice Owls didn't come easily to Texas. Last year, the Texas Longhorns pulled away late for a comfortable double-digit victory in Houston. Today, only a clanked three-pointer prevented the match-up from heading to overtime.
Behind a barrage of second half three-pointers, No. 20/21 Texas improved to 5-1 with a 62-59 defeat of Rice. This game was close throughout, and Rice actually led at halftime. The Owls played disciplined basketball for a full 40 minutes and almost pulled off the upset. It was clear from the opening minutes that Rice was going to slow the tempo as much as possible on offense and sit back in a severely collapsed zone and dare Texas to beat them from the perimeter. It almost worked.
In the first half, Texas got decent looks from behind the arc but hit just 2-of-10. Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson were largely overlooked by the Texas guards and most of Longhorns' shots were perimeter jumpers. Not even Dogus Balbay had much luck collapsing the zone off the bounce. Rice led 23-20 at the break.
The strategy from Rice was no different in the second half, but Texas did finally started making some perimeter jump shots. The Longhorns hit a game-changing nine three pointers in the second half-four from zone buster Jordan Hamilton, three from freshman Cory Joseph, who looks more confident by the game, and even two more from senior Jai Lucas. If Texas hadn't heated up from behind the arc, they would have lost this game. Period.
Credit also goes to Rick Barnes for electing to press and trap after made baskets in the second half. The tempo increased slightly, and the game appeared more natural for the ‘Horns. The first half was strictly a half-court, thinking man's affair. Rice executed their offense well-using the full shot clock and employing high ball screens and dives to the basket to confuse the less disciplined Texas defense. Even tough the Texas press didn't create turnovers or lead to easy buckets in transition, the pace of the game became marginally quicker and the game more comfortable for the Longhorns.
Offensive MVP: Hamilton hit four threes in the second half to spur the Texas offense, but the nod goes to Cory Joseph. Cory has now put together back to back solid games offensively. Against Sam Houston State, Joseph used curl cuts in the half court and on baseline out of bounds plays to earn solid mid-range looks at the basket. With the zone limiting his ability to run his man off screens today, Cory stepped further out on the floor and picked his spots from behind the arc. Joseph scored a game high 14 points on an efficient 5-of-8 from the floor. He nailed one three pointer in the first half and three more in the second. His only bucket from inside the arc may have been his biggest, though. Gary Johnson hit Cory with a nice feed as Joseph emerged along the baseline for an easy lay-up and a 60-57 Texas lead with just 37 seconds to go.
Defensive MVP: None. Rice executed their offense beautifully. The Owls committed just six turnovers, shot 41% from the floor, 40% from behind the arc, and snagged eight offensive rebounds. In a slow paced game, Rice did just about everything they needed to do to win.
Free Throw Woes: As solid as Texas was behind the arc, their misses from the charity stripe almost cost them the game. In the final minute, Thompson made only one of two; Joseph missed the front end of a one-and-one; and Hamilton sank only one of two as well. For the game, Texas went 11-of-18 (61%) from the line.
Front court Subs: I'm not trying to be an alarmist but Tristan Thompson is playing too many minutes. Since our two blowout wins to start the season, TT has played 40, 40, 28, and 34 minutes. I'm not worried about his play now. I'm worried about his play in February and March. As a freshman last season, Avery Bradley averaged 29 minutes for the season but 32 minutes in Big 12 play. Like the team's, Bradley play fell apart down the stretch last season. If Thompson continues to play 30+ or 35+ minute games now, he's going to be just as tired as Bradley was last season.
What's the answer you ask? Uhh, not sure you are going to like it, but it has to be more Matt Hill and more Alexis Wangmene. With Clint Chapman redshirting, those are our only two front court subs. Against Rice, Wingman played seven minutes and Hill just five. That total needs to be closer to 20 or we are going to have a tired Thompson and probably a tired Johnson come tournament time.
J'Covan's Emotions Watch: I've written this before but this team needs a third scorer from the point or scoring guard spot. It doesn't matter if it's Joseph or J'Covan Brown but it needs to be one of them. This afternoon it was Cory and Brown's offense wasn't as needed. J'Covan played just 15 minutes and contributed five points and two boards. With Lucas and Joseph hitting from deep in the second half, Barnes elected to roll with them down the stretch, and he gets no argument from me. Overall, J'Covan played fine. He kept his cool and didn't complain after calls or non calls, which is exactly what Barnes needs.
One quick comical story about Brown. Late in the game, Barnes was trying to sub offense for defense on Rice's foul shots and vise versa on ours. He kept swapping Dogus and Hamilton but at one point called for Brown as well. J'Covan got up from his seat and headed to check-in. Before he could get even passed the coaches, it appeared Barnes changed his mind but maybe wasn't so sure. So, J'Covan sort of stood there for a minute and then walked back toward his spot on the bench. Just seconds later, Brown was called toward the coaches but never asked to check-in. This time instead of heading back to his seat, he sat down in the seat of Rick Barnes, while Barnes was standing and shouting instructions. I've seen lots of players want into a game but I don't think I've ever seen a Longhorn sit in the head's coaches' seat. I thought it was pretty funny.
Anyway, kudos to Rice for playing hard and executing so efficiently. Texas got a test from Rice and hopefully learned a ton. The next time they see a sagging 2-3 zone, the Longhorns should be more prepared to attack it.