Credit to Georgetown for their part in Tuesday night's 64-41 win over Texas -- the Hoyas played solid team offense and excellent defense, and would have been challenging to defeat even on a good night -- but the way the Longhorns played tonight, they might have lost to Chaminade. Again.
Not Exactly What I Had In Mind
Where to start with this one? My keys to the game is as good a place as any:
Connect on some three pointers. The only player who would make any all night long, Sheldon McClellan (2-5 on the night) still isn't starting for some reason I've yet to fathom (more on that in a bit), and the rest of the team bricked all 8 of their attempts from beyond the arc, for a team performance of 2 for 13 on three pointers. Not exactly what I had in mind. A few of the looks were forced shots, but the majority were just bricks on open looks. As hot as we were on Saturday, we were ice cold on Tuesday.
Handle Otto Porter. The best player heading into the game was the best player on the night, stuffing the stat sheet with 14 points 8 boards, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 steals -- all game highs for any player on either team, except rebounds (Jonathan Holmes grabbed 10 for Texas). You can't shut a player like Porter out from the box score completely, but far from handling him, Porter handled us. Not exactly what I had in mind.
Ioannis Papapetrou. I thought Papi could play an important role for us in this match up. After starting 5 of our first 7 games and averaging nearly 25 minutes per contest, Papi didn't start and played just 13 minutes against Georgetown. I thought he was contributing some nice things on both ends of the floor for us, and was disappointed that he was used so sparingly for this match up. Yet again, not exactly what I had in mind.
Don't play like freshmen. On the first prong -- awareness of our opponent -- I thought our guys were in the game mentally and although a few miscues and successful backdoor passes were going to be inevitable, for the most part we demonstrated awareness of our opponent and what it wanted to do. As for the second prong -- turnovers --I wrote: "Along with three point shooting, the single statistic that may dictate whether or not the Longhorns can win this game is turnovers. Don't cough up possessions and Texas can absolutely play with Georgetown. Lose a bunch of turnovers and I can almost guarantee a loss, and perhaps an ugly one."
We already discussed the dreadful three point shooting (2-13 on the night), but how'd they do on turnovers? Let's just start with our possessions between the opening tip and the under-16 TV timeout:
|03||Miss FG (Lewis), Miss Dunk (Ridley), Miss 3PFG (Lewis), Miss Lay Up (Lewis), Turnover (Ridley)|
|04||Miss 3PFG (Felix)|
|07||Miss 3PFG (Holmes)|
|09||Made 3PFG (McClellan)|
|Totals||11 possessions, 8 turnovers, 3 points, 1-6 FGs
Uh, not exactly what I had in mind. Hell, 8 turnovers on your first 11 possessions is not exactly something my mind even thought possible. Good grief.
Things literally couldn't get any worse than that, but they didn't get a whole lot better the rest of the way, and when the game mercifully came to an end, Texas had scored just 41 points on its 69 possessions, with far more turnovers (22) than made field goals (14), and having shot just 29% from the field for the game (14-49 FGs). Some of that is attributable to the Hoyas -- who were long and athletic and played great defense -- but Texas was coughing it up and hurling bricks indiscriminately: under pressure, wide open, and everything in between.
On all four keys to the game, then, Texas came nowhere close to doing what it needed to do to compete for a win.
Five Steps To Better Basketball
Whatever amount of momentum and optimism was beginning to build following the three wins over poor teams, was erased and then some tonight. There's an important wild card here -- the return of Myck Kabongo -- that impacts the analysis of this team, but let's put that wild card aside for the moment and talk for a moment just about the team as it is right now.
Honestly, in 15 years of watching Rick Barnes Texas basketball teams, this is probably the most concerned I've ever been in early December about the team's chances of earning an NCAA Tournament bid over the course of the season. We muddled through a weak opening slate of non-conference opponents by going 5-2 with one terrible loss, just got waxed by our first top tier opponent to fall to 5-3, and could very easily find ourselves 7-6 on January 5th when Big 12 play begins, without a single non-conference win that helps our resume. It's looking like 7 of Texas' 9 conference opponents will be good to very good (with Tech and TCU being the only subpar squads). Even if the Longhorns were to go 2-7 on the road (wins at Tech and TCU) and a perfect 9-0 at home to finish 11-7 in conference, they still might be on the NCAA Tournament bubble, with an 18-13 overall record and no non-conference wins to speak of (plus an awful loss).
Setting aside the bean counting, though, this Kabongo-less Texas team doesn't look like it could get to 11-7 in conference by protecting home court all the way through. There's time to improve, but not a lot of it, and the truth of the matter is that the team we saw tonight, absent substantial improvement, is not an NCAA Tournament team. Where in previous years I've always been able to see the team's path to the Tournament -- not just in terms of counting wins, but developmentally -- right now, that path is very, very foggy for this team. It's far from hopeless, and I don't mean to suggest that this group of players won't develop into something good -- just that right now, it's not clear that they're on track to get there in time to be an NCAA Tournament team.
If they are to pull it off, they've got to get better -- and more consistent -- very quickly, and I've got five suggestions for immediate changes that I think would help:
1. Quit messing around with Sheldon McClellan.
I know Barnes has his reasons for withholding McClellan from the starting line up, but look, this is clear cut: on a team where McClellan playing an Alpha role is not just desirable but essential to its success, bringing him in off the bench is patently ridiculous. If you want to send a message to the kid for something you're not seeing from him, send him to run stairs after practice. Because by not starting him, you literally can't be sending the message as clearly and forcefully as you need to that he needs to be the dominant, primary offensive force on this team.
In my season preview I talked about Sheldon's potential to elevate this team from good to great. Let's revise that: he can be the difference between us being average and good. In the NCAA Tournament and out. Start him, and tell him to score like his name is J'Covan. Immediately.
2. Stick with the zone defense, or leave it alone.
I didn't like the decision to forego our zone defense for man-to-man to open up the game against Georgetown, in part because of the match up but also because of how important I think it is to commit to being a zone defense, rather than a defense that plays zone. The former can work, the latter rarely does. I'm generally in favor of a team not messing around with zone at all, but I'm on board with this particular group being capable of playing a very good zone defense. But we should either do it, or not mess with it much at all, because by going back and forth we're more likely not to be a great zone defense or man defense. Pick one, and try to be great at it. Mix in the other only sparingly, when the situation unequivocally demands it.
3. Figure out the 4.
McClellan needs to play 30+ minutes per game, so there shouldn't be more than 10 minutes available on the wing, leaving as the key position to figure out the small forward spot for which Texas has four options: Holmes (current starter), Papi, Lammert, and Bond (eventually, we hope). Bond is a pure 4 all the way, Lammert can play some minutes spelling Ridley/Ibeh at the 5, and Papi can play just about every position on the floor.
Holmes thinks he can play some minutes at the 3, but I'm losing my patience with that notion. In fact, I'm losing my patience with Holmes altogether. I've been very pleased with his effort and improved strength rebounding the ball this year (averaging a team high 8.4 per game), but he's been absolutely dreadful on offense: 17 for 41 from the field (41.5%), just 2 of 12 from beyond the arc (16.7%), and a miserable 9 for 22 from the free throw line (41%). He's playing 25 minutes per game and producing an offensive rating of 83.9, which is just awful. For some perspective, last season Julien Lewis's offensive rating of 94.1 was the lowest on the team and one of just three below 100; this year, only Lewis (105.9) and McClellan (113.7) have ratings above 100, Papapetrou is at 99.1, and six Longhorns -- Holmes plus the other five freshmen besides Papi -- have offensive ratings at or below 84.
Last year Holmes sported an offensive rating of 110 -- what gives? Last year, Holmes was not being asked to create offense, shooting mostly in efficient, high-percentage opportunities. This year, however, Holmes is trying to be an offensive creator, and the results speak for themselves; he's been terrible at it. I really don't like Holmes in that role, and just like last year when it seemed silly to send anyone other than J'Covan (or McClellan, as a good second option) on a one-on-five attack, it's equally senseless to do that with Holmes over other, better options.
One of those is McClellan, but another is Papapetrou, and I think Barnes needs to make a decision here while Kabongo remains out. If he thinks we need offense, and I'm not sure how anyone could conclude otherwise, Papi needs to play more, and Holmes needs to play less -- or at the very least needs to quit trying to be a creator. It's not his game, and it's hurting us. I like Papi as a creator much more, one of a couple key areas that I think he has more to offer of what this team needs than does Holmes.
And that includes body language and leadership. Holmes body language is just incredibly depressing, always looking like his puppy just died, never celebrating with or encouraging his teammates. I've never seen a sadder looking basketball player. Papi, by contrast, has boundless energy and charisma coming out of his ears. Someone in Maui told me that the players all naturally gravitate to Papi and that he's as good a leader as they've ever been around. I believe it, and you can see it when you're in the arena with the kid. His role on this team needs to be elevated, because this team desperately needs it while Kabongo is out.
4. Open up the floor with some running line ups.
After an awful start to the game, we saw some encouraging development from Cameron Ridley that portends well for what's ahead. Ridley's development remains a priority, but even if he's playing 25-30 minutes, there's a real opportunity in those other 10-15 minutes to put some line ups on the floor that can open up the floor and run. Ridley is literally the only player on this roster who wouldn't thrive playing in an open court system, and I don't have to tell you that they're struggling in the halfcourt.
When Ridley is sitting, Barnes should structure his line up to run, and then get after it. Felix, Lewis, McClellan, Papi and Lammert would be a great running unit. Holmes, Bond, and Ibeh can all run, as well. In fact, as athletic and versatile as is everyone on this team besides Ridley, it's a missed opportunity not to run. Given our halfcourt woes, it simply becomes more a matter of necessity.
5. Pray for Myck Kabongo's return.
Getting Jaylen Bond back soon would be nice, but yeah: this team needs Kabongo back on the floor immediately. We just discussed some of the other things Texas can do to improve, but the one that matters most is out of our hands entirely. If we do in fact get him back for North Carolina and could manage to steal one from a reeling UCLA squad, things could look a lot more promising very quickly.
Tonight, things just looked a year away. And that's something we've never seen since Rick Barnes arrived.