Believe it or not, writing a game recap can be a tricky thing. While many readers will have seen the game, others will have only glanced at the box score. In writing a BON recap, I've always tried to balance the need of explaining the narrative of the game to those who didnt see the game while also properly contextualizing that same narrative for those who did. Walking this line can be tricky, and writing today's recap presents a real Gordian Knot.
In easily the weirdest game of the season, Texas defeated Texas Tech in a must-win game. But, moreso than any game this season, the outcome of the game has to be understood in the context of the game's narrative. When properly constructed, the narrative demonstrates how this game could simultaneously be one of the most meaningful and meaningless games of the season. Due to a series of bizarre circumstances, the nature of this game--and especially the first half--will likely never be replicated the rest of the season. However, the developments of this game show that Rick Barnes has potentially abandoned what appeared to be the post-KU plan for this team. And therein lies the crux. While large portions of this game can be written off as an anomaly, there are some developments that could signal a critical shift for this team as we enter the final two weeks of the regular season.
As many people are fond of saying, crazy things tend to happen when the Longhorns travel to Lubbock. Today was certainly no exception. After the jump, I'll outline all the strange details from this game, which was crazier than anything that happened on Shutter Island.
As a forewarning, the "Game Recap" section will be extensive. I want to properly outline the game for the benefit of those who missed it. More than any game this season, I think it's critical to understand all the circumstances of the game in order to properly framework it within the overall context of the season. Just looking at the final score/box score would give a flawed impression of what happened, so I want to flesh out the narrative.
Game Recap: Even though I tried my best to get home in time, I wound up missing the first few minutes of the game. The first time I refreshed my Blackberry in the car, the score was 6-0. When I refreshed after parking my car, it was 13-4. By the time I turned on my TV, it was 16-6 at the 16:43 mark. I quickly learned that--in these 187 seconds--three strange events had already happened:
1) Texas started the game by using full-court pressure.
2) Dexter Pittman had been knocked out of the game by an inadvertent punch from Damion James.
3) Justin Mason hit TWO three-pointers, and the Horns were 4-6 from behind the arc.
After two more possessions, the score was 18-8 at the 16:41 mark. At that moment, two more strange things happened, one of which was catastrophic. First, as you've all seen on the highlights, Dogus Balbay went down with a non-contact knee injury. It looked bad, the reports sound bad, and it's likely that his season is over. Second, Rick Barnes put Damion James on the bench since he had recently gotten his second foul. As we've seen several times with several players in previous games, he didnt return until the second half.
With Varez Ward/Shawn Williams already out, Balbay/Pittman being injured during the game, and James sitting on the bench, Rick Barnes wound up using the worst first-half lineups of the season. Even though Pittman eventually returned, these lineups were so terrible that I made a table to help outline exactly what we had on the floor. I hope y'all like this table, since I lost my entire initial game recap the first time I plugged it in. Remember, Balbay got injured and Damion got subbed out at the 14:51 mark with the score 18-8.
Your eyes are not deceiving you. Here are some fun facts from the first half.
1) In the first half, Justin Mason played 18 minutes. Jai Lucas played 6 minutes. J'Covan played 2:02.
2) Eight players played more minutes than Damion James.
3) Dexter Pittman played even less than Damion.
4) Jordan Hamilton went 1-6 from the field and missed both of his free throw attempts.
5) Most incredibly, for the last 4:44 in the first half in road conference game, the Texas Longhorns used a line-up that included both Clint Chapman and Matt Hill.
I sincerely hope these things wont happen again the rest of the season. Yet, despite all of these lineups and the poor shooting from Hamilton, Texas was still leading 37-30 heading into the second half. Incredibly, despite Pittman/James/Balbay all being out of the game for nearly the entire last 15 minutes of the first half, Texas Tech was only able to shave 3 points off the Longhorns' early lead. The primary reason Texas was able to sustain their lead was that Gary Johnson was the best player on the floor. In the first half, Gary scored 12 points and grabbed 7 rebounds (3 offensive), despite only playing 10 minutes. With Hamilton struggling with his shot, Johnson scored 12 of Texas' final 21 points in the first half. You know, after three of our starters were out of the game.
Even though I think the first half is largely meaningless in looking at the context of the rest of the season, it's worth mentioning that some of the usual suspects on the bench were still terrible. Jai Lucas was predictably awful and is simply not an answer for this team at the PG spot. In perhaps his worst play of the season, he refused to dish the ball on a 3-1 break and got stuffed when he tried to score on a layup. Lexi Wangmene might have been even worse, as several passes clanged off his iron hands and he grabbed only 1 rebound in his 7 minutes. It was no surprise that he didnt play in the second half. I thought Hill and Chapman looked better than Wangmene, but, at this point, I really dont need to tell you too much about those two.
Coming into the second half, Texas had a rested Damion, a non-concussed (and rested) Pittman, and I thought it was going to be smooth sailing towards a double-digit victory. For the majority of the second half, that appeared to be exactly the case. It's worth mentioning that, unlike the chaotic first half, Texas was able to tighten up its rotations in the second half. Rick Barnes kept Bradley/James/Mason on the floor for essentially the entire second half, Gary Johnson played 15 minutes, and Dexter and Jordan Hamilton each played around 10 minutes apiece. With Hamilton sliding into the starting lineup spot of the injured Balbay, Texas quickly extended its lead to 47-34 at the 16:51 mark. The starters were clicking, and everything looked good.
After Mike Singletary hit two jumpers to make it 47-39, the game took another strange turn. In a sequence that probably has Red Raiders fans shaking their heads--and maybe their fists--Texas scored 6 points in a single possession. After Darko Cohadarevic committed an intentional foul on Dexter Pittman underneath the basket, Pat Knight got T'd up for rushing onto the court to yell about the call. Rick Barnes inserted J'Covan Brown to shoot the technicals, Dexter hit both of his free throws, then Avery Bradley hit a pretty jumper to stretch the lead out to 53-39 with 15:23 left. Once again, everything looked good.
Despite turning the ball over on 4 out of their next 5 possessions, Texas maintained its double-digit lead heading into the second TV timeout. Similar to Wangmene's struggles, Dexter had a few passes doink off of his hands, which is becoming incredibly frustrating to watch. At this point, it was becoming apparent that Justin Mason was getting tired and needed to take a breather. Yet, despite having a fresh J'Covan Brown on the bench, Rick Barnes refused to make a move. And, eventually, it cost us. But not right away. Sticking with Mason at the point, Texas kept holding Texas Tech at bay, and, with 5:00 to go, Texas was still up 67-56. Once again, everything looked good (enough to win).
And then, as you know, the wheels slowly came off. Over a 2-minute span, Texas missed 3 straight shots and Nick Okorie hit 3 straight shots for Texas Tech, culminating with a 3-point bomb that brought the score to 67-63 with 2:49 left. From there, it was on. After a Damion James jumper, Okorie immediately answered with a three-point play to make it 69-66 with 1:54 left. At this point, Rick Barnes made the first of his bizarre second-half substitutions--he brought in Jordan Hamilton, who had been sitting on the bench since the 10:00 mark. After Hamilton turned the ball over on a spectacularly awkward jump-pass, Okorie went 1-2 from the free throw line to make it 69-67 with 1:00 to go. In a very Denis Clemente-like effort, Okorie scored 11 straight points for Texas Tech. But the only reason his points mattered were that the Texas offense had simply shut down. With Mason running the point and Hamilton/Brown parked on the bench, Texas scored 2 points from the 5:10 to the 1:00 mark. Considering he had played more minutes in this game than in the previous FOUR GAMES COMBINED, his fatigue and eventual ineffectiveness were not surprising.
Then, at that 1:00 mark, Rick Barnes made his second bizarre second-half substitution--he finally subbed J'Covan Brown into the game. The same J'Covan Brown who had played a grand total of 4 minutes. The same J'Covan Brown who had played half as many minutes as Jai Lucas during the first half. Y'all know what happened from there. Mason--yes, Mason--missed a shot on our next possession, but Damion got fouled after grabbing an offensive rebound. Naturally, he missed both free throws, but we survived a Tech miss on their last possession to win the game.
The outcome was: Misleading. As I tried to lay out in painstaking detail in the recap, this game should never have been this close. Despite having to use patchwork lineups and having to dig down to the end of their bench, Texas dominated the first 35 minutes of the game. The wheels coming off at the end of the game were largely a product of Justin Mason being overextended with his role--and his minutes--throughout this game. Mason's performance today will divide fans, but, as I'll discuss later, I think he deserves some credit for what he did today.
Stat of the Game: Texas Tech had 4 second-chance points: Texas' domination on the glass (44-30) prevented Tech from getting many second looks. Texas only allowed the Red Raiders to grab 7 offensive rebounds during the entire game, while the Longhorns corraled 18 offensive boards. By themselves, Gary Johnson and Damion James nearly grabbed as many offensive rebounds as Texas Tech.
The Offensive MVP was: Gary Johnson: As Wiggo mentioned earlier, Gary Johnson was a man today. In only 25 minutes, he scored 22 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. More impressively, Gary shot well from both the field and the free throw line; he knocked down 7 of his 11 shots and 8 of his 10 free throws. In fact, outside of Johnson's 80% from the line, the rest of the Longhorns shot 7/14--a whopping 50%. It never ends.
The Defensive MVP was: The Rebounding Effort: Even though Texas Tech shot 42% from the field, their inability to get multiple looks was critical to preserving the win. The announcers also gave Avery Bradley a lot of credit for his work on Singletary today.
Why Did J'Covan Only Play 5 Minutes?: Straight up, this is the key question coming out of this game. As of right now, we dont know the answer. According to the game thread, some cryptic pre-game quotes from Rick Barnes hinted at some type of bad performance from practice, but what possibly could have happened in three days? The team played the late game on Wednesday, so there were only two potential days of practice in-between these two games. The post-KU narrative for this team centered around J'Covan getting more minutes and opening up the offense with his abilities as a shooter and a playmaker. He played 32 minutes against KU, 30 minutes against NU, and even 26 minutes in a mediocre performance against Missouri. Today, he played five.
In case you missed it, PB wrote a fantastic article over how Rick Barnes has potentially strangled the potential of this roster with his management style, instead of properly cultivating it. Here's a money quote:
But here we are in mid-February and Barnes hasn't handled this team in a way we understand. No one confuses Barnes for a tactical pro, but it would be equally disingenuous to suggest what we've seen this year is somehow typical of him. One of the most important reasons Texas has gone to 11-straight tournaments and been one of the Top 10 programs over the last decade is that Barnes handles freshmen well and tends to get a lot out of them.
This year, Barnes has not seemed to do well bringing along J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton. It's not that he was wrong pointing out their many mistakes, it's that he personally guaranteed that those mistakes carried lasting consequences. He seemed to lack confidence that his goals could be achieved while bringing those two along out on the floor, and now the wheels are coming off and we're not where we'd be if we'd just done this all along.
Even though none of us knows what happened in practice this week, the evidence today tends to support PB's theory. With Dogus Balbay out for the game--and potentially the season--Rick Barnes refused to let the freshman PG take over the show. Instead, he gave a combined 45 minutes to Justin Mason and Jai Lucas. This type of decision would seemingly make sense in November or December, but we're literally in the last stretch of the conference season.
Nearly the entire BON community reacted favorably to the strongly worded quotes from Rick Barnes coming out of the Nebraska game. At that point, it looked like the team might have finally come together in the ashes of the KU beatdown. But, after today's game, the quotes have to be analyzed for the entire weight of their words. Today, Rick Barnes was willing to keep J'Covan Brown on the bench while the game was slipping away. I dont think any of us thought Rick was bluffing, but it's something else to see the threat manifested in its entirety.
In conjunction with today's game, the quotes reminded me of the character Rorshach from Watchmen. One of my law school friends is a Watchmen geek, and, when we watched the movie, he told me about how the dynamic of Rorshach is that "his mask is black and white without any shades of grey. Which is exactly how he views the world." And, as PB outlined, that can be a characterization of how Rick Barnes views the development and playing time of his talented freshment--they will do it my way, or they will not play. No compromising. I dont mean for this comparison to come across overly harsh, but it's stuck with me ever since the game, so I wanted to share it.
"Never compromise with freshmen basketball players. Not even in the face of Armageddon, which would be hitting .500 in conference play by blowing a double-digit lead at Texas Tech."
Justin Mason was the same, but different, but really the same (but still different (kinda)): It's hard to properly characterize Mason's performance today. The fact that he played 38 minutes today is staggering on several different levels, especially with the level of intensity and effort that he brought. Even though he limped to the finish line, he started off the game by drilling two jumpers, being more aggressive, and dishing out 4 assists(compared to one turnover) during the first half. The optimist in me would focus on how the team performed during his first 25 minutes on the floor--before he got tired--and how he seemed to play better defense today.
The pessimist in me would point to the overall body of evidence. After hitting his first 2 shots, Mason went 1-9 from the field for the rest of the game. This included missing several layups and other easy shots. The pessimist in me would also point to the offensive stagnation at the end of the game, and how he turned the ball over 4 times. We'll have to see how Balbay's injury and Lucas' suckiness affects his playing time moving forward--it better not be 38 minutes.
I miss Varez.
Dexter's Fouls Can be Ticky-Tack, but he HAS to be Smarter: Albert Einstein said "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Dexter isn't insane, but he's driving me insane with his constant penchant for picking up stupid fouls. I'll agree with anyone and everyone who says that some of his fouls aren't really fouls, but I'll disagree that he shouldn't make adjustments after he picks up a foul or two. Pittman fouled out in only 14 minutes today, which dampens what was actually somewhat of an encouraging performance, except for the fact that he dropped passes again today.
Looking Ahead: As I said at the beginning of this post, this game is potentially one of the most meaningless and meaningful games from this season. The game can largely be seen as meaningless due to the absence of our starters in the first half and Mason playing PG the entire second half. I dont think we should ever expect either of these thing to happen again during this season. However, if Barnes' decisions in this game are the first steps towards validating PB's point over the potential suffocation of this team, then it's just another reason to think this season is slipping away from our grasp.
For those of you who are still reading, I want to end with a quote that my mother sent me to describe her analysis of this team's mental state: Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. Right now, it's hard to know exactly what's going through the heads of our players, but that quote gave me chills--in the bad way.
In looking forward, Texas has a winnable home game against Oklahoma State on Wednesday night, then heads to College Station for a showdown with the Aggies. Based on today, we still have no idea what to really expect from this team on Wednesday night. All that I know is that I'll be there.