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Texas Basketball Report 4.5: Dare To Dream Big

I'm watching the DVR of the game today and will post more player/game notes later. Below are thoughts during the euphoric late night hours after getting home from the Erwin Center. You can read previous editions of the Texas Basketball Report here.

After last season's disastrous collapse, it is perhaps understandable that so many have been hesitant to believe in Texas as a Final Four contender again. Not only that, but heading into this season Texas was considered by most to be the fourth- or fifth-best team in the conference. Both Wiggins and I thought we were looking at a 21-10, 10-6 type of team. Hopefully a good enough team by February to have a fair shot at being a No. 6 seed.

But here we are with just one game left in the month of January and Texas is 18-3 overall, 6-0 in Big 12 play, and one of the leaders in the clubhouse for a No. 1 seed. If the season ended today, Rick Barnes would be your national Coach of the Year. And though for reasons I'll explain in more detail below I've been hesitant to pull the trigger on endorsing Texas' fans dreams of a trip to Houston, that ship has sailed. This team is one of the best in the country, and a Final Four contender. A national title contender.

Let that sink in for a second...

I won't pretend I knew we could be this good. I didn't, and you didn't -- no one did. What I did tell you, in the aftermath of our early exit from last year's NCAA Tournament, was that if after last year there was no longer room to call the Rick Barnes doubters irrational, I thought we had the right coach at Texas and what was most important was that Rick learned and grew from his disappointing 2009-10 season.

Well, that's exactly what happened. And though during such an exciting time I hate even to bring this kind of stuff up, as mentioned above I've been hesitant to tell Texas basketball fans they should dream big with this team. We did that last year, and the disappointment caused a lot of fans to doubt that we had the right coach at Texas. This season has confirmed that we do. And barring a literally unthinkable collapse, there can and should be no other takeaway from what we're witnessing. Whether in the NCAA Tournament we make it to the Final Four or stumble out early, this season needs to be appreciated.

So dream on. Dream big. I'm right there with you. Just understand that elite success -- an elite coach -- means being in this position. We've got the right guy. His time will come. That it might come this year is all we need to know....

Okay, I feel better. Much more analysis and meta-thoughts after the jump...

Well, sir, it's this defense. It really ties the team together.  We weren't great offensively against Oklahoma State (merely solid) and we would have been great offensively against Missouri had we converted a healthy percentage of our free throw attempts. But we still won easily on the road at OSU and only have ourselves to blame for not beating Missouri by 20 at home. The reason? Our team defense is outrageously good. Literally: outrageous.

Heading into Saturday's game, Texas was leading the nation with an Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating of 83.7. That number won't rise after tonight's smothering performance against Missouri, in which the Tigers hit just 19 of their 56 field goals, including just 4 of 18 from downtown. (To put that in perspective, last year's national title winner, Duke, finished fourth in the nation with an 85.9 rating.)

After tonight, through six games Big 12 opponents have hit just 36% of their field goal attempts and an obscenely low 21% of their threes. If Texas continues on this pace, we're not just talking about the best defensive team of the Rick Barnes era, but one of the best defensive teams of the last decade.

And that's perhaps the biggest reason why we should be comfortable allowing ourselves to dream big. I like this club offensively, but what makes us a Final Four contender is that we can still beat good teams if we have a bad night offensively. Hell, at this pace we can have a mediocre night offensively and beat good teams by 10+ points.

Dogus Balbay treats objects like women, man.  It's no secret that I may be the fan base's biggest fan of the Turkish Delight, but we really saw against Missouri why he's such a valuable player. There's the defense, for which he's well-known, but Rick Barnes played Balbay for 30 minutes against Missouri because he's not at all a liability on the offensive end. Not with this year's team.

For the objectivists in the audience, the numbers speak to truth: heading into Saturday, Balbay this year had produced an offensive rating of 113.8, with an impressive 24.4 assist rate to boot. Those numbers won't go down after his performance against Missouri, in which he delivered 8 points on 4 shots, while delivering 5 assists (plus one OHMYGOD behind-the-back pass that should have resulted in a SportsCenter Top 10 play, except that he delivered it to Wangmene).

The upshot is that Rick Barnes has a player who can be a defensive specialist, but isn't limited as such. There will be games when the match up dictates more minutes for J'Covan Brown, but where Dogus' defensive prowess is more valuable, Rick isn't making an enormous sacrifice by playing Balbay for extended minutes. No, he can't shoot, but he's an underrated ballhandler, he's got excellent instincts, he understands spacing, and the kid can finish around the rim.

Dogus Balbay is not an elite point guard with a future in the NBA. But he's a much, much more valuable college player than most realize. I was going to say I'm his Number One Fan, but an older gentleman in my row tonight brought a full-size Turkish flag to the game.

You, sir, are awesome.

You're out of your element, Missouri!  The obvious key to the game on Saturday night was who would dictate the pace and style of the game. And in this regard, like everything else other than free throws, Texas dominated the game. This wasn't a slow game, but neither was it helter-skelter. Missouri did some pressing, but for the most part backed off, without much to gain from the endeavor. As I said in the preview, I was glad Texas had four days to prepare for Missouri and what they like to do, and it was evident we used that time well. Texas inbounded the ball with a guard into the corner (to another guard), lured any trap that might be coming and, before any danger might set in, quickly passed back to the inbounding guard. We finished with 15 turnovers, but I counted just 3 that were due to Missouri's press. The rest were run-of-the-mill mistakes.

I was actually rather impressed with Missouri's halfcourt defense, which forced us to work for a good look on every possession, but it's noteworthy that the game was played this way. They would have preferred a more frantic pace, and we definitively denied that opportunity, to our advantage. In a halfcourt battle, Missouri was outmatched.

You are entering a world of pain.  Okay, let's talk about the free throw shooting. After hitting 57 of 72 (79%) free throws against Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Texas A&M, the Longhorns hit just 16 of 34 on Saturday versus Missouri, the single biggest reason the Tigers remained within striking distance down the stretch.

In the near-term, I wouldn't lose too much sleep over this. Not only does Saturday's win provide the case-in-point that Texas is good enough to win anyway, but it's not the kind of thing that can stand between Texas and the goals the team now has before it the rest of the regular season. That is, poor free throw shooting isn't going to be the reason Texas fails to earn a strong seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But this six-game winning streak has elevated the expectations beyond that. It is not just fair, but now prudent, to start talking about what this team needs to do to get to the Final Four in Houston. There are other things that are most important (the team defense and continued post-UConn excellence in defensive rebounding, to name two), but if we're looking at top-end goals, this isn't something to dismiss, either.

The 2007-08 Memphis Tigers come to mind. That team had it all. Well, almost everything. Just a single pock on their resume: free throw shooting. That semi-pro team steamrolled Texas in Houston en route to a berth in the national championship game, which they all but won, but for the ability to close out Kansas, who hung on just long enough -- with just enough missed free throws -- to force overtime, where... well, you know how that ended.

So if this is the Texas Basketball Report where we officially dare to dream big, well, then this is the time to point out that this is one area that could cause the team to underachieve. All it takes is one hot shooting night from the other team, and one poor performance from us at the line, to negate all that otherwise great work we do on the defensive end.

Sometimes there's a team... I won't say heroes, 'cause what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a team - and I'm talkin' about Texas here - sometimes, there's a team, well, they're the team for their time and place. They fit right in there.  It's wild how trying a year was 2010. With both Mack Brown and Rick Barnes, the disappointments challenged my core beliefs about both coaches. The nightmare football season directly put to test my operating thesis about Mack Brown as a much-tougher-and-more-adaptive man than his fiercest critics recognize. And the nightmare basketball season put to test my belief that Rick Barnes not only was a good enough coach for a football school like Texas, but was one of the very best in the entire country, not nearly as far behind the head coaches whose winning a national championship elevated them to top-tier, untouchable status.

I suppose there's still some "wait-and-see" left with what Mack Brown does heading forward, but the job he did assembling this staff has made his naysayers look silly. Whatever his fate from here forward, the charges that he was too complacent, or too incompetent, or too old school, or too whatever, simply do not hold -- not in light of what he's done in reaction to the failure of 2010. Maybe it won't work out, but it's utterly preposterous to suggest he hasn't met, if not exceeded, even the most demanding expectations.

I feel similarly about what we've seen from Rick Barnes following the disappointment of last season. I suppose that the final chapters could alter the final storyline somewhat, but at least as far as I'm concerned, we've gotten all the validation that we need. I was very hopeful about the program's future because of the impending arrival of Myck Kabongo, the elite floor general/playmaker I assumed Barnes needed to achieve top-end success, but we are enjoying a much sweeter treat instead. Rick Barnes' Texas basketball team is wow-ing us without a TJ Ford or DJ Augustin.

And that is truly remarkable. A truly transformative moment in the Rick Barnes era. Because it's one thing to believe that we have an elite coach who -- so long as he succeeds in recruiting the point guard he needs -- can deliver a Top 10 program. And it's quite another to know we have a coach who can deliver a Top 10 team without one.

That was not clear a year ago, and that's what makes this year so special, and what makes this team so much fun and exciting to root for. And this program so much fun and exciting to root for. It would have been fun to see Rick do it again because he had a point guard like Kabongo. It's exponentially more enticing that he's doing it right now, without him.

It's funny, because I used to base a lot of my defense of Rick Barnes on the fact that so much of elite success in college basketball is a matter of fortuitous alignment. If only, I thought, TJ Ford hadn't gotten hurt in a pick up game and had stayed for his junior year...  If only Texas had been able to enjoy just a little bit of overlap between Tucker-Gibson-Aldridge and the phenomenal freshman class of 2006... If only KD had returned for a sophomore year...

Last year, it seemed that the stars finally aligned: a core of experienced players anchored by DaMo and Pittman returned, supplemented by the phenomenal freshman trio of Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton, and J'Covan Brown. And though for a while it looked like we might be headed for a pinnacle, not only wasn't it to be, but everything came crashing down. By the end the season was, in no uncertain terms, a disaster.

Looking back, it's clear that my vision of what constitutes an aligning of the stars was entirely centered on having the good fortune to have a dream team of returnees like the 2005 national champion North Carolina Tar Heels. Through that prism, last year was Rick Barnes' first big opportunity of that kind. And by the end, it was a disaster. 

We'll see what happens to this year's team, but I think that what we're seeing is that it's not so easy to predict when the stars are aligned. It's not easy to see when your freshmen will be brilliant talents on an average team, and when they will be perfect pieces of a brilliant team. Whatever Rick Barnes' own faults in last year's debacle, it also turns out that he's got pieces that better fit together this year.

I didn't see it coming, but I'm enjoying every second of it. And at this point we are the favorites to win Rick Barnes' fourth regular season Big 12 title and, if things keep rolling as they are, earn a No. 1 seed for the second time during his tenure.

Cherish that. Cherish it because it's unexpected, and because it isn't just the product of a brilliant point guard. This is something more interesting, and special, than that. It says a lot about the kids on this team. And about our head coach, Rick Barnes.

I was going to tell you to wait to dream big until we had Myck Kabongo.

Don't bother.