A solid final 10 minutes of the first half positioned the Longhorns to pick up what would have been a huge road win, but weak rebounding, depressing transition defense, and poor play from primary ball handlers sunk Texas in the second half. With the 82-77 loss, the 'Horns drop to 20-6 on the year, 6-5 in Big 12 play.
There were silver linings to the loss -- positives of the type that make it easy for me to believe Texas is capable of making a deep run in March. Depressingly, there's no way to escape seeing this as a very disappointing loss -- the letdowns of the type that make it hard to believe Texas is going to make a deep run in March.
On the bright side, we're starting to see more and more of the mature, directed version of Jordan Hamilton, and it's clear what an incredibly valuable offensive asset it is. Likewise, we saw stretches of play from the team that make clear we'd be capable of beating about anyone if we could pull it all together on a consistent basis. Not perfect basketball for 40 minutes -- no team can do that consistently -- but strong, smart basketball throughout would be enough to beat all but a few teams in the country.
Those would be legitimately important, encouraging points on which to focus... if the calendar read December. The problem, at this point, is that we're past the point where it's useful to focus on silver linings, and upon the point where the weaknesses you see are the weaknesses you should expect to saddle you when the post-season arrives.
And in that light, this loss was disappointing. If it were earlier in the year, or if Missouri had simply outclassed us with a dominant team and/or tremendous performance, there might be better cause to remain hopeful about where Texas might be in March. As it was, both the manner and timing of the loss have to be considered bad signs for the team's chances of achieving the high goals we've all hoped were in store for this season. Specifically:
- We lost another game because all of our primary ball handlers struggled in discouraging ways. Balbay contributed very little offensively, made plenty of mistakes and, most damningly, played tentatively. J'Covan Brown failed to build on his KU/NU performances to be a floor general with the ball in his hands, struggling with penetration, poor decisions, and inability to set up teammates. Avery Bradley had his moments, but is as yet incapable of performing with the consistency that we need given the limitations of Balbay/Mason and the continued immaturity of Brown. Jai Lucas didn't play, but safe to say that he would have struggled with Missouri's trapping and pressure defense even more than our bigger ball handlers did.
- Without primary ball handlers helping the effort, we've neutered our strengths on the interior with Damion James -- who's mostly playing well, but incapable of doing it all on his own for sustained stretches -- and Dexter Pittman, who's been an out-and-out liability as defenses have been able to sink into defending the paint with impunity.
- The mental mistakes are perhaps the most damning thing of all. We can and do talk about things we think Rick Barnes could do better, but at this point in the season, I think it's hard not to see this team as being beyond the help of mere tactical adjustment. We miss astounding numbers of free throws. Our transition defense belies a complete and total lack of sustained mental concentration. Our talented rebounders frequently stand and stare, literally appearing to succumb to blank minds for two seconds while the ball is in the air. Both Wangmene and Johnson defend the middle of a zone like their primary responsibility is to ensure no one hits a 15 footer in the semi-circle atop the key. We follow up good rotations on help defense with possessions in which we look like we're aliens plopped on the court with no clue that such a concept even exists. It's little things, and it's indicative of a mentally weak team. How do you fix that? With the practice time allotted NCAA teams, you don't.
- Add it all up and the overwhelming evidence is that these if these recurring problems were ever fixable, they certainly are unlikely to be now. The hyper-optimist in me will dutifully discuss in tomorrow's Texas Basketball Report what we'll need to see for this team to peak in March, but as we wrap up tonight, I won't try to sugarcoat what this loss is: another data point indicating that this Texas team is merely good. And unless it bucks the odds with 11th hour development, we'll have plenty of time to sit down together -- in all likelihood before the Sweet 16 gets underway -- to discuss why it never became great.