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Texas Longhorns Basketball: Hoops Roundtable, Part 2

Texas Longhorns basketball returns.
Texas Longhorns basketball returns.

The Texas Longhorns men's basketball team tips off its season tonight against Navy at 8:00 p.m. at the Erwin Center.  Below, we continue the season preview conversation from Part 1... (Note: Obviously, this conversation took place before the Shawn Williams news broke.)

PB:  I agree with Blake's excellent assessment in every other respect, but let me spend a couple words on our coach here.  I realize that coach-bashing is all the, uh, rage right now, but let's not be sloppy about it.  And what I mean is that I think of Rick Barnes a lot like I do Mack Brown -- an excellent program head with clear weaknesses who needs certain things around him to succeed at the highest level.

First, that's true of every successful football and basketball coach on the planet.  And second, in my estimation Barnes has frequently gotten the most out of his teams.  Last year was a bad year -- for the team, and for Rick Barnes -- but it doesn't make Rick Barnes a bad head coach. It means that he did a bad job last year. Just like Mack Brown is doing a bad job right now.

And just as with Mack and football, the proper question with Barnes and basketball is whether he's able and willing to surround himself with what he needs to succeed. At various times, both coaches have done it, and at other times they have not, and paid the price.

Let's just be clear about that, because good coaches have bad seasons. In my view the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that Mack and Barnes are basically good coaches. The focus should be on what they need to do to have great seasons. Mack needs to replace his offensive coordinator (or find a quarterback who can make magic all on his own). Rick needs a point guard who can create flow in Barnes' stagnant offensive systems. (I'm oversimplifying their needs here, the point being that they have blind spots with which they need help, and their abilities to succeed at the highest levels are really about successfully addressing them.)

Now, building on this morning's fantastic discussion on personnel, let's talk strategy.

I mentioned in my opening comments that I was eager to get my first look at Joseph in person because there's a lot about players you just can't know until you watch them (a) play live in a game and particularly (b) live in person. Live in person at practice is good, but live in person at a game is key. There's a lot about basketball players that doesn't come through the TV screen very well, or at all.

At least in my mind, a lot of what makes sense strategically depends on what kind of player Cory Joseph is going to be as a true freshman. I need to see him live in the flesh, because I need to see what his potential is to create offense on the bounce. My view of his tapes is that he's solid in that regard, because he's skilled/polished/hoops-intelligent, but I'm not so sure he's a guy who can disrupt a great defensive team all on his own.

If he is, hooray, we're going to be good quickly, but I don't think that's the player we're getting until Kabongo arrives next fall. And I think Joseph will be a brilliant two-guard playing alongside Kabongo.

This year? We'll see, but if Joseph is more of a deliberate point guard, I'm guessing we'll take a little while to develop offensively, and I worry about us doing a lot of standing around and taking a lot of jumpers instead of working cooperatively to get open looks. Ask me again after I've had a chance to see in person what Joseph's got in his game.

As for the defense, let me ask you, Andrew. Is Rick Barnes crazy to think this team can avoid playing a zone? He swears they're going man-to-man. With our best line up being so small, do you think that will last? This also looks like a team that can run, and a team that will be great in transition. Would you press?


Wiggo:  Over the years, we have both given Barnes more credit on the defensive end than the offensive one, and tilted our praise toward the players-Durant, Augustin, Ford, etc-on the offensive end. One of the many problems last year was that we had such a mismatch of talent. We essentially had an offensive players (Pittman, James, Hamilton, Brown, and Bradley) and a defensive ones  (Wingman, James, Mason, Balbay, and Ward) with James being the only player showing up in both sets. More often than not, Barnes went with the defensive five, and we each took turns banging our heads into the wall watching us stand around on offense, not get touches for James or Pittman, and then jack a shot from 25 feet. I pray that we avoid the same mistake this season.

All that said, I do think Barnes can vary his defensive approach with different personnel. For example, my starting five-Thompson, Johnson, Hamilton, Brown, and Joseph-should be able to score but will also have difficulty rebounding and defending. Given the lack of skills by players outside of this five, Barnes is best served by going with this five for as many minutes as possible. If Barnes follows this advice, then, yes, he would be a fool not to play zone.

First, two of my five are freshman, and I seriously doubt that either is ready to play Barnes-perfect man-to-man defense. Therefore, I'd love to see a 2-3 zone, especially early in the season. The zone works for a couple of reasons. First, defenders are less susceptible to getting caught in bad switches off high screens. In a zone, if Brown or Joseph is screened at the top of the key, a second line of defenders is already positioned to react to penetration. Second, a zone should keep the starting five out of foul trouble. Let's face it, no one should be too excited by what Barnes has coming off the bench.

There are obvious downsides to sitting in a zone though. Rebounding responsibilities are less clearly defined and pace of play can be significantly slowed. However, I think overall Barnes would be wise to employ some zone early in the season, let his freshman develop, keep his best offensive players on the floor and out of foul trouble, and avoid using Hill, Chapman, or Lucas as much as possible.

When Barnes does substitute or need to increase the tempo, I'd prefer more man-to-man. Maybe going with Wangmene, Johnson, Williams, Joseph, and Balbay would be a stronger, yet still small, defensive unit. These five might have trouble scoring but could excel in using solid man pressure to create fast break opportunities.

As far as pressing, I like it because it creates pace and let's players play. That may sound stupid but the slower pace of Big 12 conference games and NCAA tournament games last season was another reason for the epic collapse. Early in the season, Texas was winning by forcing tempo, creating turnovers, scoring in the open court, and flat out wearing people out. As the competition got tougher, the games became slower, and half court execution was at a premium. Without a future NBA point or really a point guard who could make a jumper from inside the lane, we played 3 or 4 on 5. Defenses sat in the lane, dared us to shoot, and our offense stalled.

Last year, Texas was afforded the opportunity to press because, at least on paper, they were a deep squad. This year, Barnes may not have that luxury. After my starting five, I have no problem giving minutes to Wingman and hope to have no issues with minutes for Williams. I also think Balbay will be needed as defensive stopper or as a push-the-pace point guard when surrounded by finishers. Playing Balbay in half court games is going to make me not want to watch. The rest of our bench, Matt Hill, Clint Chapman and Jai Lucas, leave much to be desired. If we're only eight deep, pressing for more than just parts of the game is probably asking too much.

Wescott, you love "X's" and "O's," where do you see Texas going for points on the offensive end and where are our biggest weaknesses on the defensive end?


GoBR: Offensively, I don't see Barnes doing anything much differently than he has in the past - in other words, the same random ballscreen offense dependent on a playmaker at the point guard position.

The good news is that I think both Cory Joseph and J'Covan Brown should be effective running the pick and roll, with Joseph already having some experience working with Thompson on pick-and-rolls from their time together both at Findlay Prep and on the AAU circuit.

Gary Johnson should also be productive, particularly on the side pick-and-roll that often worked well last season and possibly even picking and popping from deep if his three-point stroke has improved as much as reported. Regardless of how good he ends up being from long range, he should still be a good pick and pop option in the mid range.

Texas won't have much of a post presence this season since Thompson is still quite raw in that regard and the teams over the past several years have been so poor at entering the post anyway. As a result, I think the Longhorns will try to spread the court to open up driving opportunities for players like Hamilton, Johnson, and Shawn Williams.

Back to Johnson for a second. Damion James had his greatest success off the bounce after he moved to the four and had a major advantage in foot speed. The same should hold true for Johnson and Rick Barnes would be wise to exploit the mismatches created by Johnson's versatility.

Defensively, it's hard to believe that Texas will be able to consistently be a good man-to-man team, as Barnes obviously prefers. Joseph was good enough on the defensive side of the ball that Findlay coach Mike Peck called him the best defender he's had there, notable since Avery Bradley starred defensively for the Pilots his senior year of high school. Brown and Hamilton will in all likelihood struggle to stay in front of their man at times - Hamilton would benefit from better effort and actually getting into a defensive stance, but his lateral quickness just isn't great and he's going to spend quite a bit of time guarding smaller, faster players.

If Barnes insists on this team extending defensively, it's going to be really susceptible to dribble penetration, as they were last year with a group that had better individual defenders. Thompson should be a solid shot-blocker, but there isn't going to be a lot of length rotating over to stop dribble drives and guards getting beat on the perimeter is a recipe for Thompson getting into foul trouble.

I think Texas ends up having to play a lot of zone this season to help protect Thompson and limit forays into the paint by opposing guards. It also means that the Longhorns will struggle mightily on the boards, which is going to be a major weakness whatever type of defense Texas plays.

Bottom line is that this is a team that will need to play efficiently on offense because they probably aren't going to help themselves out a lot on the other side of the court.


Txtwstr7:  Looks like we're mostly in agreement here. With this roster, it's hard to get too creative in how you can constructively make the pieces fit. I mean, you cooooould try to slam together random combinations like the aforementioned "Lucas, Balbay, Williams, Chapman" show, but, really, what's the point? Especially now that Williams has jumped ship.

Which kinda perfectly, in a twisted way, sets up exactly what I wanted to talk about. We've talked about what we expect from Barnes, the team, and the players, but I wanted to talk about what we expect as fans. About what we really want from this team.

Right now, I'm sitting in the DC airport, staring at a random college basketball team about to get on a flight. They look happy. They look relaxed. They look like I was thinking about the chemistry issues about our team, and how it might be better this year, when I got a text from InDKRsShadow telling me that Williams decided to leave the program. I got another text saying that students still don't have their PDF tickets for tonight's game. I just sighed and looked back over to the team sitting next to me.

I don't want to wax poetically over intangibles. That's not the point. The point is that I want to see a unified front from this team. Wiggo has already cautioned everyone about hoping that this team will fill the void from football season. He's also cautioned everyone about hoping for a conference championship. I want to do the same, but I want to do it in the sense of explaining what I want from this team.

More than anything, I want to see good basketball from good basketball players inspired by a good basketball coach. That's really it. My needs are simple. But I can better explain what I want by explaining what I don't want. I don't want to see ugly basketball from mediocre backups because the coach got unfairly upset at the starters. Ultimately, I want Rick Barnes and the youngsters to meet each other in the middle. I want them to check their attitudes and play hard, without feeling crushed under an oppressive system that doesn't maximize the talent on the roster.

This program just lost Pittman, James, Mason, Ward, Bradley, and Williams. It's about to lose Johnson, Hill, Chapman, and Balbay. It may potentially lose even more players as transfers or early entries to the draft. This season, the program desperately needs to stop the bleeding. And that, more than anything, is what I want from this team. I want them to find a steady landing place from last year's freefall.


GoHornsGo90: I'm going to make a couple of comparisons here to illustrate how I'd like to see this team play this season. The first is the 2006-2007 Texas team that had KD, D.J. Augustin, Damion, and A.J. Abrams as its key players. We had basically no depth, were way undersized, couldn't defend anybody, and relied on a lot of young players. After reading both Part 1 and Part 2 of the roundtables, you should start to see a recurring theme.

But you know what that team did? They had a hell of a lot of fun, scored a ton of points, and were able to play with basically every team on the schedule because they had a lot of firepower in the starting lineup and couldn't be stopped in transition with their speed and athleticism. They ran into an inexplicably bad matchup against USC in the second round of the NCAA tourney (a team that actually led UNC by 20 in the Sweet Sixteen before collapsing), but damn it if I didn't enjoy watching that team play. They loved playing together, weren't selfish, and hustled their butts off every night.

Last year's team looked like they were scheduled for a lobotomy later that day throughout basically every game. If, and it's a huge if, Barnes loosens the reigns on this team and allows them to be supple on defense and mainly try to outscore teams (something he realized needed to be done from day one in 2006-2007), I think we'll field a solid team that enjoys playing the game and, subsequently, gives us a heck of a show along with 10 conference wins, a bye or near-bye in the first round of the Big 12 tourney, and a mid-level seed in the NCAA tourney (four-six). If Barnes starts pulling players after one missed defensive assignment or one questionable look on offense, we'll see the players start complaining to the refs and sulking on the bench like last season. Keep it loose, Ricky B!

The second comparison I want to make is to Missouri under Mike Anderson. While Texas can't fullcourt press the entire game like Mizzou does due to depth issues, I'd love to see us go to an aggressive halfcourt trapping defense or trapping 2-3 zone. It's less taxing stamina-wise to the players and creates a frenetic pace that most college basketball players love playing at. As odd as it may seem, Mizzou isn't necessarily concerned with stopping the other team from scoring. They're primary objective is to frazzle the opponent into a mental state they aren't comfortable with or used to, ipso facto leading to turnovers, rushed shots, and a general state of entropy throughout the opposing team.

Remember when Texas would be down by about 10 near the end of games last season and Barnes would put in five athletic guys to press, steal the ball, and run down to court to slam it home at the other end? Our players looked so much more comfortable-liberated even-working outside the confines of such rigid and defensive schemes. That's the kind of attitude I want to see from Rick and our team this year. Start Cory, J'Covan, Hamilton, Gary, and Thompson just take the leash off on them offensively and defensively. As long as they don't play selfishly and keep working hard, build them up and take the mistakes in stride.

I know Barnes sees himself as a strict disciplinarian who is in complete and utter control of his team on each and every possession, but I just don't think that's the attitude to take with this team. Let them make mistakes, let them grow together as a team, and just keep it positive and up-tempo baby!

Watching the football team this season, the basketball team last season, and even the baseball team over the summer, I'm almost completely convinced that the players and the coaches at UT sometimes just wilt under the immense weight of expectations from representing the University of Texas. This isn't meant to be an indictment of any those teams, merely a statement about how high the stakes are for all three teams in the public sphere each and every game. In my opinion, this is what leads to the "play not to lose" attitude that has been commented upon so often, especially regarding the football team. When you feel like you're already "there," you're prone to focusing on maintaining your level in the stratosphere instead of taking the risk of falling from grace whilst grasping for an even higher echelon. We saw that the past two years in football (yes I know we got to the national title game last year, but does anybody really think we were better than in 2008?) and we saw it in the hoops team last year.

Here's what I'm saying, and it goes with what Txtwstr imparted above: If Barnes shoots for the stars and comes up short, I may be disappointed but I absolutely WILL NOT criticize him for trying to get us to a whole new level, even if it's risky and could result in a missed NCAA tournament bid. I abhor complacency and I feel like Barnes does too. If he rolls out the starting lineup I enumerated above, I'm sold on Barnes for this season and I'm buying the cheap Texas hoops stock right now because we're headed back in the right direction. If he starts the season with Balbay and Wangmene starting over CoJo and Tristan, I won't be surprised and I'll obviously still cheer my ass off for the team, but I won't have many positive expectations for the team this year or any time soon. While it may seem like irrelevant whether those two guys start on opening night, it speaks directly to Barnes' mindset and how he's planning on leading this team through the season.


PB:  And with that, we are officially ready for season tip off.  Get to the Drum and support this team.  At long last, Texas basketball returns. Hook ‘em!