Posted January 11th, 2009 by Mike
Filed under: Basketball, Feature

Gary Johnson has become one of the team's most consistent scorers.

Sophomore forward Gary Johnson has become one of the team's most consistent scorers.

The Texas Longhorns scraped by a game [tag]Iowa State[/tag] ball club to win their conference opener 75-67. The game came sandwiched between a loss to Arkansas and a looming Big Monday showdown in Norman against the top-ten ranked Oklahoma Sooners. All of Texas’ losses have come away from the Erwin Center.

The Longhorns continue to struggle from the perimeter. Teams are proving that [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] can be taken out of Texas’ half court offense and the guys around him do not have the skill set to consistently knock down three-pointers. Texas ranks last in the Big 12 in three-point shots made.

It is likely that Abrams and the other Horns will regain confidence in their outside shot. As conference play begins guys like [tag]Damion James[/tag], [tag]Conner Atchley[/tag], and [tag]Justin Mason[/tag] will get better as they play familiar foes. The problem that appears to not have an answer on the roster is at point guard. Abrams doesn’t have the ability to play there against high level opponents and Mason for all his strengths is not getting it done. Bench players like [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] and [tag]Varez Ward[/tag] are not consistent enough yet to be counted on. Balbay has an even worse jump shot than Mason and Ward doesn’t play the defense Barnes expects for an on ball defender.

The disadvantage of not having an explosive point guard has been evident in the late part of Texas’ losses. All three losses were determined in the last minute of the game, and all but maybe [tag]Notre Dame[/tag] could have been won with better offensive execution. The Longhorns can’t get easy shots. They can’t get them for themselves and they can’t get them for their teammates. With all the good things this team does it won’t mean much come March if the point guard doesn’t become a factor for this team.

The saving grace for this team and the one thing that makes them dangerous come tournament time is their ability to match up and play on ball defense like no other team in the country. Damion James playing at the three has not paid off completely on the offensive end, but it has vastly improved the total team defense for this team. Last year Mason was guarding small forwards, he now guards the point guard. The length James adds to the lineup at the three position helps with tip balls, help defense, and rebounding on both ends. Texas does a great job with help defense for the most part. The negative that comes out of that is they occasionally find themselves out of rebounding position. Texas allows too many put backs.

Over the last few games [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag] has emerged as a weapon. The sophomore is sliding into the role James abandoned when he moved to the wing and he is quickly becoming a major factor on offense. Lately, Johnson has been the go to guy and the most consistent player on the offensive side. He rebounds with ferocity and hustles at all times. Barnes will rely on him more and more because of the emergence of his mid-range jump shot. Johnson has a high release which allows him to get it off every time without the threat of a rejection. He will have to be huge on offense and defense against Blake Griffen for Texas to have any chance against Oklahoma.

Another player that needs to step up in the middle is [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag]. The big man is a mismatch for everybody on the court. The work he has done in the weight room cannot be understated, but he has to avoid the cheap fouls that prevent him from finding out how many minutes he can play. When he is on the court he opens up the outside, shots that will eventually begin to fall. The Longhorn outside shots are not going to come from drive and kicks, they will come from the post. The more attention that has to be paid to Pittman, Johnson, and James the more space Abrams will have.

No doubt this is a down year for Texas. And by that I mean their ceiling isn’t as high as teams of the past. But it says a ton about the program, coaches, and players that a down year fields a conference championship contender, a top-ten ranking, and a good shot at going to another Sweet 16. We just watched a football team overachieve for a full year, maybe the basketball team will do the same.

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