Any non-conference game against a middling Power 5 opponent is an opportunity to avoid a loss that impacts seeding or participation in the NCAA Tournament come March. For the Texas Longhorns on Friday, the stakes were even a little bit higher against the California Golden Bears in the third-place game of the 2k Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden.
That’s because issues with the new small lineup and defensive strategy employed by head coach Shaka Smart resulted in a train wreck of a second half against Georgetown on Thursday — Friday’s early game was a chance for Texas to get better and to respond to the adversity created by such a poor 20 minutes hours before.
After a first half that finished with Texas ahead 25-21, the Longhorns came out strong in the second half, essentially accomplishing against the Golden Bears what the Hoyas accomplished on the same court on Thursday. Separating quickly and then maintaining the lead, the Horns finished the second half with a margin of plus-13 points thanks to solid play that helped Texas cruise to the finish.
Only turning the ball over five times during the game helped and represented a key departure from previous performances.
The inability of Cal to exert the same type of defense pressure on Texas that Georgetown did made a difference as well, both a credit to Patrick Ewing’s team and a recognition that the Golden Bears don’t seem to have that same defensive potential in the first year under Mark Fox. Not on Friday, at least.
So call it the type of performance for Texas that was made more necessary by the context of Thursday’s loss and overall need for growth for a program that still ranks in the lower third of Division I basketball in experience. Mission accomplished, more or less.
Once again, junior guard Matt Coleman was the catalyst a day after setting his career high with 22 points, dropping in 14 points and six assists in a performance that wasn’t as efficient from the field — call it regression to the mean, like anyone more articulate than Dan Dakich — but was equally impactful. Will Coleman, as some might call him, but otherwise known as Matt Coleman to everyone else, only hit 5-of-14 shots from the field and 1-of-6 three-point attempts.
It took into his third season for Coleman to start showing more consistent flashes of the player that Smart recruited to lead his program. Now it’s happening and that’s a big check mark on the list of things that need to happen this season if Coleman can continue playing this well. He’s certainly capable of it.
In particular, Coleman has taken the next step as a defender, putting a motor to the speed and quickness that made him such a force offensively as a high school standout and now as an emerging standout at Texas.
As a team, there were some continued issues on offense with shot selection — partly a natural result of trying to play faster with more guards, partly a result of bad decisions, but junior guard Jase Febres scored 12 points on six three-point attempts. When Febres can do that and Coleman plays well, Texas will have a chance to play close games in the Big 12.
Since three-point shooting can be a volatile stat and sophomore guards Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey are both struggling to make shots right now, this Texas team is shaping up to have a higher delta than a team less reliant perimeter players.
In other words, shot selection and shot making are so key because the Longhorns will once again attempt three-point shots at volume this season — Texas ranked tied for 60th nationally in attempts entering Friday’s game — so the team will have to find other ways to win when shots aren’t falling, in part by not wasting possessions with bad shots or turnovers.
As Smart said this week, it’s a fine balance and that balance will be especially fine for the Horns this season, because this is a group that should be the best shooting team for the Texas head coach since his first season in Austin.
Still, both Jones and Ramey should improve throughout the season. After all, Jones is still adjusting to competing in college basketball games multiple times a week after only recently finishing his final round of treatment. And Ramey is still working through his attempts to regain his rhythm after missing multiple weeks of preseason practice with his wrist injury.
Ultimately, some key margins for this team are its ability to successfully take away good three-point looks from opponents without helping or fouling or giving up shots at the rim on defense — the essence of assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s defense.
Cal shot 35.6 percent in this game, made only 1-of-8 three-point attempts, and scored only 16 baskets total. So even though the assist rate was high for what Texas wants overall, the Longhorns can most likely live with giving up eight assists in game.
That’s in part because having a margin of plus-15 points on made three-pointers is a winning proposition.
In the area of avoiding fouls, Smart’s team struggled once again, committing 19 fouls that resulted in Cal having an advantage of 13 free-throw attempts. Considering that Texas didn’t shoot a free throw until more than 30 minutes into the game, some of that margin was probably, um, bad luck.
But when the defense relies so heavily on five players all being capable in playing one-on-one coverage — at times like a cornerback on an island in football — there’s a lot of pressure to defend without fouling.
The Horns clearly need to continue growing in that area, a development that isn’t exactly surprising after six games.
Right now, the most important thing is that Texas is 5-1 with a big road win while showing some promising flashes in some of those areas that will make up that key margin between winning and losing.
Junior forward Jericho Sims had another strong performance, finishing with confidence and authority around the rim on the way to 6-of-7 shooting for 12 points with nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end. Texas also entered the ball into him twice and he looked decisive with his post moves, hitting one of his two shots that that weren’t outright dunks. Sims also had three assists, showing his value working from his new position at the top of the post, where he helps initiate the offense now as it moves away from the spread high ball screen that Jaxson Hayes keyed.
The timing with the guards in that role is more challenging this year because he’s responsible for setting screens on dribble handoffs, in addition to triggering ball reversal and getting in the side pick and roll that way.
So Sims has committed some offensive fouls on those handoff screens, but overall he’s taken a significant step forward so far this season and made himself an impact player against Cal. Texas will need that consistently this season, especially with the lack of proven contributors behind him.
With sophomore forward Gerald Liddell dealing with some foul trouble and some more growing pains with his efficiency on offense, freshman forward Kai Jones flashed significantly for the first time after scoring his first college basket against Georgetown. At the four, Jones had a strong weak-side cut down the baseline on dribble penetration for a dunk in the first half, had another dunk in a similar situation working off the ball, and had four rebounds and a block.
Teams will adjust quickly to take away some of those weak-side cuts for Jones, but he made it clear that his length and athleticism play well with his finishing ability — on all three of his baskets, all dunks, he showed the patience to maximize his physical advantages and finish.
If Jones can do for Texas what he did today in finishing, not turning the ball over, and making a difference on the defensive end with his rebounding, then he’ll help the Longhorns, and quickly.
Fellow freshman Will Baker also made another basket and came up with a steal in his continued adjustment to the college game.
With the Thanksgiving holiday looming, Texas will now have eight days until the next game against McNeese State back at the Erwin Center.