Along with projecting the football team in August, this is my favorite time of the sports year: the debut of the Texas Basketball Report, in which we take our first in-depth look at the team now that we have a solid sample of games to work with. Normally, these run on Mondays, but we got pushed back a little bit by the coaching chaos with football, followed by the holiday break.
Speaking of which, I hope your holidays were as great as they were for the Texas basketball team.
Texas is 10-2, with one good loss (narrowly, to Pitt, in a game Texas easily could have won) and one bad loss (in a dismal showing against USC) interspersed amongst 10 wins ranging from uninspiring (North Florida) to fantastic (gutty road win over UNC). I figured the team would be interesting, and competitive, but I didn't see us sweeping Illinois-UNC-Michigan State. This team is not only fun, it is very good, and improving (with plenty of room to grow yet).
To explore how and why the team has exceeded everyone's expectations, let's revisit the five questions I asked to open the preseason roundtable:
First and foremost, I'll be interested to see whether Barnes has succeeded in getting through to Hamilton and Brown, both of whom were huge attitude problems last year-literally uncoachable, according to one person with whom I talked.
More on this in the player notes below, but the transformation has been remarkable. Obviously, Hamilton is completely bought in, his 180 one of the most satisfying unexpected pleasures to watch in recent memory. As for Brown, the progress has been incremental, but it's real, and there are still way too many Longhorns fans who don't see it, and don't get it. But it's there, and it's important.
Second, there's no question we're going to be a much worse rebounding and interior defensive team with the loss of James and Pittman, but I think a good case can be made that we'll be better offensively. This is a core of players better suited to Rick's strengths as a coach. Half-court offense based on inside-out play is... well, not.
The early returns have confirmed my hypothesis: this team is a more balanced and, overall, more potent offensive club. We're running better offense (against man and zone), we can spread the floor with shooters, and we use our post players in effective ways. Last year's team was bigger, more athletic, and more talented. But this year's group is better overall, and better developed. Credit goes to Rick Barnes (and whoever taught these Canadians how to play the game).
Third, how good is Cory Joseph? I'm told he's absolutely dazzling people in practices and scrimmages right now, and I can't wait to get my first look in person. Is he good? Or is he great? If he's great, we're very interesting.
He's great. He's not the most talented player Texas has ever had (not even close), but he's one of the most polished guards Texas has ever featured already. As a true freshman. He's a fantastic college guard. Absolutely fantastic.
Fourth, which big man, if any, takes a step forward this year? Can Matt Hill be a productive role player? How big does Tristan Thompson play? Has Chapman developed at all? Can Wingman regain some of that promise he flashed before his injury?
Hill is a productive role player. Wangmene is indeed making good on that proimise he flashed as a freshman. And Tristan Thompson plays BIG. All three are important, but most crucial is how big Thompson plays. He's 6-8, but in college, he's basically a center. A really good one. With lots and lots of potential.
And fifth, how consistent can Gary Johnson be for us? This team has a lot of scorers, and we'll need Gary to be an all-around guy for us. Will he rebound? Will he distribute?
So far, so good. It's taken him all four years to get here, but this is the ideal Gary Johnson for college basketball. He gives us decent rebounding and post defense, but uses his offensive skills to be a match up problem and all-around strong, consistent contributor.
The five most important questions heading into the year, and five very agreeable answers.
JORDAN HAMILTON - As noted already, his turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Literally uncoachable a year ago, Hamilton has undergone a complete 180 and is playing fantastic team and individual basketball. He's making good decisions, shooting exceptionally well (30-71, 42% from downtown), and both passing (19.0 Assist Rate) and protecting (11.9 Turnover Rate) the ball very, very nicely. If anything, he was a little too hesitant to shoot at times early in the year, passing up some shots he should have taken, but Rick has gotten through to him that while taking good shots does mean avoiding bad ones, it shouldn't mean passing up good ones. He's good enough that we want him taking those open shots, almost every time. In any event, he's grooving right now, and the one worry heading forward will be if he starts to settle too often for jumpers. His Free Throw Rate is merely average, and if he's not feeling it from the outside he needs to slump bust with drives to the rim, not more jumpers. For now, it's all good, though.
As for his future, the consensus is that a fantastic season means he's headed for the pros, and that's probably correct, but it's not a sure thing at this point. For starters, there's the potential for an NBA lockout in 2011. Moreover, he's got work to do before he can play pro ball. Another year of college and physical training would only help, especially defensively, where he's improved, but a long way from good. It'll be an interesting evaluation in April.
J'COVAN BROWN - Go back to my Lamar game report and you'll see where I stand on J'Covan Brown. As I said at the time, I thought that while Brown himself was to blame for his not earning minutes, Rick Barnes might do well just to let him play for extended minutes for a while and see if being allowed to get in a rhythm helped him work through his mental issues. Rick apparently agreed, as J'Covan saw extended minutes in the 'Horns next game against USC, J'Covan was the only bright spot on an otherwise dismal evening, and he's been a hugely important contributor ever since.
Brown still makes some bad decisions, but Texas fans are now overreacting to them. It's perhaps understandable, but the paradigm has changed. This is much closer to the J'Covan we want. He's not going to be perfect, and you're going to have to live with him doing some dumb stuff out there (although, one hopes, less and less of it, if the trend continues, as I think we're seeing), but we're just an exponentially more dynamic team with him playing 25+ minutes per game. For my money, he's the best pure basketball player on the team, which is not to say he's the most talented, or the most polished, but he has the purest hoops instincts of any player on our squad. He has struggled to transpose those instincts into the kind of solid, consistent team play you need at the collegiate level -- which is why you see some of those dazzling looks that too often result in turnovers -- but it's those same instincts which enable him to lure a trap from the 1-3-1, then at precisely the right moment make the quarter-court pass to the wide open shooter (Joseph) on the far side. No one taught him that; he just sees it, and feels it. If he can keep his head straight and continue to refine those instincts, he'll be one of our most valuable contributors.
CORY JOSEPH - The talent is obvious, but let's all take a moment to thank the men who coached these Canadian kids, as well. They're the most polished freshmen I've ever seen come through Texas, and it's not close. After starting the year tentatively, Joseph's game has blossomed as he's grown more comfortable, and what we're seeing now is the kind of elite guard play that can anchor a Final Four team. Maybe not this year, but depending how things break with the roster, I'm tingling to see what Texas is capable of in 2011 and 2012. Don't be afraid to dream big here. Joseph is a capable player with the ball in his hands, but I'm thrilled to see him playing alongside a point like Kabongo.
Joseph's not a pure point and lacks truly elite quickness, but he's plenty quick enough, and more importantly, he knows how to use both space and his own body to create advantages. His game gives Texas a versatile guard threat who can work off screens to hit threes, dribble-drive, and occupy defensive capital in ways that benefit the other four guys on the floor. Underplay Joseph and he'll pop you with a jumper. Isolate him with an average defender and he can drive and/or get a shot one-on-one. Overplay him and he starts the ball reversal that leaves weakside guards open and passing lanes to bigs with great deep position. We're a better offensive team from a structural perspective in part because of what Joseph can do.
Finally, worth a mention is Joseph's on-court demeanor. There are different kinds of swagger, and Joseph definitely has some, but it's the kind that manifests itself in can-do confidence. It's a more subtle, quiet swagger than Michael Jordan/Vince Young swagger, but it's what makes him the kind of player who hits that shot against North Carolina. If J'Covan Brown can morph his own swagger into more of the Joseph-type confidence, he can be an elite college player, too. The skill and instincts are there.
DOGUS BALBAY - One of my all-time favorite Longhorns is playing a diminished role this year, but he remains a very useful role player whose weaknesses we're much better equipped to handle than we were the past couple of years. With three pure outside shooters on the team, plus a versatile midrange guy like Gary Johnson, opponents can't collapse their defenses into the paint any more, which mitigates the concern with playing Dogus.
He's lost a half-step following the knee surgery -- doesn't spring off the floor quite as explosively -- but he's still an elite athlete, fantastic defender, and can be a value-adding offensive player. When he's out there, Balbay's racking up assists at an excellent clip and he can score at the rim when the opportunity is there. Rick's done an excellent job of using Balbay in the right spots and has demonstrated an excellent understanding of how this group of players can be matched together in effective ways based on the opponent, situation, and strategic objective.
GARY JOHNSON - I've been as hard as anyone on Gary Johnson over the years, not because I dislike him, but because it seemed to me that there was a narrow way in which his value could be maximized. It took a while, but he's gotten there, and he deserves a ton of credit, because it involved him developing his game a LOT from high school. He simply doesn't have the size or strength to be a post player, and isn't quite fluid enough to be a wing. Essentially, he needed to develop an excellent midrange game, add value through smart, physical hustle, play big on the boards, and get himself to the free throw line.
He's far from a star, but he's developed himself into just that kind of player, and we're getting a lot out of him because of it. His versatility allows us to do a lot of good stuff on offense, and he's a key piece to our developing into a team that can now handle zone defense. Add in his good work clearing defensive rebounds and he's having as good a senior season as we could have hoped, and I'm very proud of him for getting to this point. He's worked his tail off, and it shows.
TRISTAN THOMPSON - What a fantastic kid. I absolutely love him, and if you haven't heard him give the post-game radio interview with Craig Way, try to sometime. It's hilarious, in a most endearing way. He's just so... earnest. He literally sounds like a 12 year old kid who's called his granddad to tell him about his first game. "And the coach told me to do this, and I did it, and it worked, and I scored! And we all played well and we won the game! Coach says we have a lot more to learn and I know we'll get better and I really love all my teammates."
Anyway, even if he weren't so likable, there'd be a lot to love about his game. Prior to this season there was real concern about this team's frontcourt size, but part of the reason that concern is so rapidly fading is that Thompson, who is listed at just 6-8, plays very, very big. The kid is l-o-n-g. His 5.7 Block Percentage is one of the best in the country, as is his 14.3 Offensive Rebounding Percentage. As is his 88.8 Free Throw Rate. (If only he could make the actual free throws.)
He's just a phenomenal player, and while he's already very impressive for a freshman, he's got a good bit of room to improve. I know after the 2k Classic a lot of folks were thinking "one and done," but I see a two year player at a minimum, and won't be surprised if we get a third season as well. Thompson has a strong base but he's lacking the upper body strength he needs to reach his full potential, and once it comes, he's going to be a huge pain in the ass for opposing teams to deal with. His length combined with his polished post moves and keen basketball understanding allow him to get off shots near the rim with both hands, from a variety of angles, and as he gets that upper body strength he's going to finish more and more of them.
The one thing Thompson lacks is touch, which isn't a skill you develop in the same way you do strength. If he can find success in developing his touch -- both around the rim and shooting the ball from 10 feet -- he'll be a demon in college and an effective pro.
ALEXIS WANGMENE / MATT HILL - In a nonconference season full of pleasant surprises, the valuable play Texas is getting from these two is one of the most important. Matt Hill's 109.9 Offensive Rating is second on the team behind only Hamilton. He has a good grasp of what we're trying to do offensively, sets quality screens, and clears enough boards to mitigate some of our size concerns.
As for Wangmene, I really liked what I saw from him as a freshman, but he struggled badly last year coming back from injury. And he was dreadful in the early going this year, as well, but a light seems to have come on in the last three weeks and we're now seeing him provide the kind of value that was so enticing to begin with. Wangmene is a very raw basketball player, but he's a very promising athlete, he has good touch, a nice stroke, and at his best can be a guy who gives you 8 points and 8 boards in 25 minutes.
JAI LUCAS - There's no nice way to say this: Lucas has been dreadful. He's missed an incredible 19 of his 22 three point attempts and his 86.2 Offensive Rating hammers home how little we get from him when he's out there. And that's just talking about offense. He's too small to rebound or defend, as well. On the bright side, Rick seems to understand that he's not effective enough to warrant minutes and that any value he might add (if, hypothetically, he were a good three point shooter) he can get from three other guards who can stroke it. And that if a guard is going to be out there who can't shoot, he can get better offense, passing, defense, and rebounding from Dogus Balbay. Lucas played just 5 minutes against UNC, and 4 against Michigan State, two teams who closely approximate what we're going to see in the Big 12.
RICK BARNES - Finally, although I'll cover this in greater detail in a future TBR, this wouldn't be complete without mentioning what a fan-freaking-tastic job Rick Barnes has done, and is doing, with this team. He struggled badly last year with numerous issues, probably tried too hard to cram square pegs through round holes, and suffered his most disappointing year as a head coach.
And he bounced right back, and is doing his best job as a coach with this young squad. From our offensive approach to his management of the team and individuals, Rick is justifying all of us who insist he's one of the best in college basketball. Coming in to this season, I thought this roster would be good to get to 20 wins and sweat out Selection Sunday on the bubble. We're better than that, and though I don't think we're an elite team this year, it's not hard to imagine this team making it to the Sweet 16, and I'm as excited about our future as I ever have been.
Most of all, I'm impressed with Rick's ability and willingness to adapt and grow. That's the mark of a keeper coach, and we're lucky to have him.