Posted January 31st, 2009 by Mike
Filed under: Basketball, Feature

Texas guard AJ Abrams shot the ball well on the way to 19 points

Texas guard AJ Abrams shot the ball well against Baylor on the way to 19 points

Texas won two games in four days against in state conference foes Texas A&M and [tag]Baylor[/tag]. Combine those wins with one against [tag]Texas Tech[/tag] earlier in conference play and the Longhorn domination of the state of Texas has continued in a season most are considering a down year.

For all the conceived shortcomings of the 2009 version of Longhorn basketball has, Rick Barnes’ team is 4-1 in the Big 12 with the only loss coming to soon to be number one ranked Oklahoma on the road. They are also ranked in the top 15 with no real bad losses on their resume. They do however have wins over [tag]UCLA[/tag], [tag]Villanova[/tag], and [tag]Wisconsin[/tag].

Texas has accomplished this by outworking their opponents on the defensive side of the court. No team in the Big 12, and maybe the country, can pressure the ball on the perimeter as well as Texas. A lot has been made about the progression of [tag]Damion James[/tag] as a perimeter player, but few take into account what it has done for the Texas defense. With James at 3 it allows another big guy to work the paint. Instead of having say [tag]Justin Mason[/tag] at 3, which you would if James still played 4 because [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] would come in to play point guard, now you have a 6’7″ guy getting hands in the face of a good outside shooter. Basically the move adds five inches to the Longhorn lineup.

Banes’ team is also aided by being full of tough guys, mentally and physically. None of them shy away from physical play or melt under pressure. [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] is a cold blooded assassin; the little guy wants the ball when the game is on the line. Everything that needed to be proven about Abrams toughness should have been laid to rest in the last few minutes of the [tag]Notre Dame[/tag] game. Texas lost the game, but Abrams singlehandedly would not let Texas give up. He made shot after shot, and came an inch or two away from draining a half court shot to steal the win.

Justin Mason may not be a great offensive point guard but the guy is a junk yard dog. He is relentless on defense and takes pride in guarding the opponent’s number one perimeter scorer. Mason is also a great rebounder and is considered by most on the team as the on and off court leader.

James, [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag], and [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag] give Texas size, strength, and physicality to the Longhorn middle. A Rick Barnes front line is not going to be soft, and these guys are no exception.

With all that said, this year’s team is not as talented as some of the year’s past. Texas ranks last in the Big 12 in three-point shooting in part because the team doesn’t have a point guard to set up Abrams, [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag], and James up for easy shots and in part because Texas simply lacks more than one legit perimeter shooter. The only player on the roster opposing teams don’t want shooting threes is Abrams. If James is shooting threes he is not driving to the bucket or collecting rebounds. If Mason is shooting threes he is not playing within his game. If Atchley is shooting threes, at least this year, it is not a good thing. If Balbay is shooting a three the shot clock is about to go off.

With no one to stretch the floor teams can basically play a box and one, leaving one man on Abrams at all times, turning the basketball game into four on four. And without a dominating point guard Texas is left to taking off rhythm jump shots in half court offense.

Point guard has been the bugaboo position for Texas all year. It is clear Mason isn’t the answer, and it is also clear Barnes feels Abrams is limited when playing the role. Enter Dogus Balbay. The Turkish national player earned more minutes than Mason in the game against Baylor. It is clear that Texas’ half court offense is at its best with Balbay at the point. The problem is you have to sit Mason or Abrams. Or do you? Don’t be surprised to see Texas go back to a small lineup when offense is needed. A lineup of Abrams, Mason, Balbay, James, and Johnson would be Texas’ best on the offensive side of the ball.

The problem is that takes away the defensive size discussed earlier. And there lies the crux for this Texas team. The Longhorns have the players to excel offensively and to excel defensively. The problem is that there isn’t a combination of five guys that allows them to do both at the same time.

The conventional wisdom is that the defensive priority will win out. Barnes stresses defense and will not likely sacrifice pressure for points. Texas will continue to rely on defense to create points and scrap out wins as they come. And the wins will come, but it will be interesting to see how they come during tournament time.

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