I was able to pin down the enigmatic, multi-talented and SBN honcho, Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation to answer several questions regarding tonight's tilt with his beloved Longhorns. I also answered a few questions for Peter over at BON which you can read HERE. Peter gives some great stuff below so be sure to read it all, I mean it...read it all or else (unless you have an aversion to parenthesis I suggest you don't read below).
NOTE: I did fail to ask him about Tim Brewster coming down and stealing Texas recruits and if that worried him about the future of the Longhorn FB program but we'll save that for another day.
1 - For most people just the thought of Minnesota gives them goose bumps and sends shivers down their spine (we are actually in favor of global warming around here, but don't tell Al Gore). It is cold here and the Gopher defense is capable of translating that into ice cold shooting for their opponents. Will the thought of a Minnesota winter freeze up the Longhorn shooters or will it just put ice in their veins?
Huh. Maybe all the kids in Minnesota are above average; how many sports bloggers open their Q&As with an appropriate and perfectly deployed extended metaphor? And one other thing: Are you sure you didn't intend these questions for fellow Texas blogger Scipio Tex at Barking Carnival? You know who I mean -- the guy who would go out of his way to include an extended metaphor among instructions for making a ham sandwich.
(To clarify, I don't mean to suggest Scipio would limit himself to any one rhetorical device… The man's never met a simile he didn’t like, so much so that if he sticks with this blogging thing for another couple three years, Dennis Miller’s previously thought-to-be-untouchable career reference record is in serious jeopardy of falling.)
((Don't take me too seriously, Gopher fans: I only tease because I love. And Scipio Tex’s similarities to Dennis Miller begin and end with their shared addiction to similes. Plus, very much unlike Miller, Scipio Tex is both likable and has something worthwhile to say. Be sure to stop by BC for TX-MN hoops thoughts.)).
Now, where were we? Let’s move past my own nasty addiction to parentheticals and address your question. Your chosen metaphor is nice, but unnecessary. Sadly, the 2009 Longhorns need neither stifling defense nor frigid air to miss jump shots by the dozen, to the point where if Dr. Seuss were still around he might find himself inspired to write that sequel to One Fish, Two Fish he always meant to get around to:
Hot air, cold air, home air, no air!
Inside, outside, courtside, [CLANG!] rim side!
The orange and the white,
The excitement each game...
More misses than makes
They all end the same.
Forgive me for continuing my plunge off the ridiculous cliff in the very first answer, but Texas fans have been having minor variations of this same conversation all season long. The agony of watching these Longhorns repeatedly crumble in the final couple minutes of each half has at its worst been unwatchably awful: Dribble, dribble, half-ass screen, dribble, jack a long jumper with a hand in your face. Worst of all, they slip into this horrible habit indiscriminately; whether winning or trailing by 10, Texas sliding into its self-destructive end game pattern has been as predictable and depressing as any of Pete Rose's annual runs at atonement. (Scipio just dinged himself 5 demerits for having not yet worked a Pete Rose reference into his blogging.)
Plunge off the ridiculous cliff complete, I'll say in my defense that in its own way the above is every bit as illuminating as would have been any direct answer. The painful truth is that shot selection generally, and weak perimeter shooting in particular (including their prominent role in Texas' embarrassing performances to close out halves ), have been Texas' preferred method for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.. From the unwatchable mess against Notre Dame in Maui, to the last-minute choke against Michigan State in December, to the outrageously incompetent second half in Lincoln, to five days ago and the mindless collapse to Baylor in the Big 12 semis...the season has been a Sysiphus-like exercise in trying to elevate from Good to Great, only to be foiled just short of the summit as the same underlying problems knock the ball back down the hill.
2 - Looking back at Texas teams in recent history the 2008-09 team, at least on paper, most resembles the 2004-05 Longhorns. Let me remind you they finished 9-7 in the Big 12, were led by a scoring guard and got into the NCAA Tournament as a middling 8 seed. Am I accurate in my comparison and will this team suffer the same fate of a first round loss?
That's been a popular comparison all season, including at times among quite a few Texas fans. While it's superficially on point, I don't find the two teams as comparable as do many others -- primarily because this year's team has better individual players who (plausibly) could have gelled into something special by March.
By way of contrast, though the '04 squad was similarly limited by the early departure of a game-changing point guard, the leftover constituent parts were incapable of raising their ceiling to Great without TJ Ford. Had he stayed in Austin for his junior year, Ford and the '04 returnees would have been legitimate contenders to cut down the final nets But there's the rub -- all the returnees were complementary players. Mouton, Ivey, Thomas, Boddicker, Harris, et al: No go-to scorers. No offensive players (inside or out) who needed to be doubled or were especially well suited to exploit mismatches. Just a bunch of solid role guys who defended well, rebounded with admirable effort, and scrapped for enough points to be Good.
Concluding with one more point about this year's team, it's worth noting that as this season got under way, that '04 comparison did look much more like a good one -- especially after the horrific loss to Notre Dame in Maui. But the 'Horns, well before the Balbay and Pittman steps forward, knocked off UCLA and Villanova in successive games, led Michigan State until the final five seconds of the game, and defeated Wisconsin on the road. Warts and all, the still identity-less Longhorns proved on the court that they were capable of beating high quality tournament teams. Throw in the Balbay and Pittman surges in February and you have some substantial evidence that this Texas team has a much higher theoretical ceiling than the '04 group ever did.
Unfortunately, this team tends to let mistakes cascade, with one mini-spurt of crap play triggering an insufferably long team-wide crap festival. And as discussed above, the worst is all too often saved for last, as halves conclude -- the end result being a Texas team with a comically large standard deviation in performance, equally capable of beating the nation's top teams as well as losing to borderline NIT clubs.
3 - Most of us know about AJ Abrams and what he brings to the table for the Longhorns, but tell me about the rest of the backcourt. Apparently Mason and Balby are not great shooters but they have combined for over 240 assists and just barely over 100 turnovers. As a team the Longhorns have not shot a great percentage but what does the backcourt do well to lead this team to W's?
The easy answer is that, with one caveat, Texas has and will continue to thrive when Balbay, Abrams, and Mason play within their defined roles on the team. Unfortunately, that lone caveat is a biggie: Texas has spent the bulk of the season trying on various personality hats, both as a team and with individual players:
AJ Abrams, you're the point guard! Okay, no, you're definitely still the shooting guard. We need your points to win! Yeah, but really, we need you to avoid trying to create your own looks.
Justin Mason, you're the glue guy! Wait, wait, can you play point? Be our point guard. Except now that Balbay's developing, you should be the glue guy again. Also, good luck doing what you do best when you're a mental trainwreck. (And be prepared to play point again if Rick wants to jerk around Balbay a bit.)
Dogus Balbay, you are not ready. Not ready to lead this team or to turn your talents into production. You should get used to your role as an occasional -- Wait. Scratch that. You're ready. To be the point guard and lead the team. You're getting closer and closer to capitalizing on that absurd speed you possess with the ball in your hands. Just try not to hang your head when, after your first tentative spell in a month, Rick decides the team can close out second halves without the vital contributions you provide.
Sadly, I'm not just trying to be clever here -- those capsules are reasonably accurate descriptions of the guards' seasons. If there's a silver lining, I do think that 30+ games into this season, the worst of that's over and we at least know what it is each guy should be doing to maximize team performance. Still, the team regularly indulges familiar bad habits, and if on Thursday night Abrams starts forcing shots, Balbay becomes tentative in the face of Minnesota's excellent pressure guard defense, or Mason winds up floating around somewhat aimlessly... well, any one of those would be a problem. All three would be a disaster.
4 - A story in the Minneapolis paper yesterday eluded to our freshmen big men having some "tricks up their sleaves" to try and slow down Pittman? What would you speculate those tricks might be? When he has struggled what have other teams done to neutralize him? And what about the rest of the frontcourt? Damion Jones has been rarely talked about for this game, what is he capable of doing and can Damian Johnson slow him down?
Despite featuring some of the most interesting match ups of any game in the first round, there's a near-universal absence of pundit excitement about this game. Among the many intriguing storylines, none is more interesting than the one you bring up now: Big Sexy versus Minnesota's off-the-charts Blocks Brigade. Now, le'ts be clear about something: here's no secret sauce for slowing down Pittman when he brings his B+ or better game. He's immovable, his footwork is good and ever-improving, he's becoming an increasingly versatile scorer with both hands (over either shoulder), he's beginning to rebound the way his size suggests him capable of, he's a solid free throw shooter who can't be Hack-A-Shaq'd, he's perfectly comfortable scanning for and executing the right pass out of the double team, and he's got velvet-soft hands rarely found on paws that large.
If the preceding seems particularly effusive, it probably is, but only insofar as Dominant Dexter's big step forward only came a mere 3-5 weeks ago. Still, that's what Minnesota's up against, and if he's playing as well as he has in many of his recent games, there's no one player who can deal with him. Now, if as you note the Gophers are whispering about special plans for Dexy, three possibilities strike me as likely:
- A hyper-commitment to the double-team, not merely after Dexy has it, but long before, with a Gopher guard who's not concerned about defending the jump shot of Balbay/Mason/Ward/etc.
- Some sort of systematic effort to get the guy in foul trouble. I can almost guarantee Tubby Smith will make Dexter prove he's up for properly hedging ball screens for Westbrook, forcing Pittman to cut off penetration without fouling the excellent slashing guard. Getting Pittman in foul trouble would be enormously helpful for Minnesota, as I'm increasingly convinced that the timing of Sexy Dexy's breakout wasn't coincidental. Halfway through his second conference season as a regular contributor, Big 12 officials got used to his incredible size and, in my estimation, began to officiate him more fairly. Will the officials in Greensboro blow a whistle every time a player spectacularly flops off Pittman's massive body? I'm sure Tubby itends to make a concerted effort to find out.
- And finally, one way to deal with Dexter is to counter with a small line up and start running. That's neither Tubby's style in general nor that of his Minnesota squad this year, but if we're talking special wrinkles, who knows?
On the last part of your question, Damion James is... well, I could write a book on him, but these answers are too long already so I'll aim for succinct: He's a tremendous athlete, he grabs at least one or two boards a game which make me chuckle in a "You see how high/far he leaped from a standstill position for that ball?" kind of way, and he has an interesting offensive skill set with potential which suffers from both his poor basketball IQ and his incredibly weak ball handling (in, around, or nowhere near traffic). James is not a star, but he does a lot of important things well and Texas is almost always in good shape if they get 15 and 10 from him. More than anything, if James gets in foul trouble it creates a dangerous rebounding situation for Texas. The 'Horns need him out there for 30-35+ minutes.
5 - Tubby Smith vs. Rick Barnes is one of the best coaching match ups in the first round. As you can imagine Tubby is wildly popular up here and has done incredible things for this program. Minnesota on the front of the jerseys isn't enough to put fear into opponents, but does the Tubby Smith factor make you more nervous about this game than it otherwise would?
I join you as a big fan of both coaches, adding to my excitement for this first round game. With that said, my love for these coaches has little or nothing to do with the coaches in any one particular game. Both are solid enough game day guys who do a lot well but possess their fair share of frustrating habits. To be sure, it's important a coach possess at least an average-to-good ability to game prep and adjust during individual contests, but I contend the vast majority of games are neither won nor lost by coaches on that given day. Rather, games, seasons, and even the multi-year builds that lead to Final Fours and championships, are products of systemic success. (Rather than use 2,000 words a second time to make this argument, I'll just point interested readers to further reading here.)
Of course, even in that light the answer to your question is yes, heading into this one I'm harboring a little bit of Tubby Terror. But to finish the point, it's not because I stand in awe of his ability to seize control of the outcome Thursday night; it's because I know he's been doing for months and months with these Minnesota players all the same things he did building successful systems at his previous jobs. I fully expect the Gophers to play outstanding positional and help defense; to create turnovers and pounce on mistakes; to be aggressive in trying to get to the paint and earn trips to the line; and to play with the the confidence and poise which accompany being trained in a stable, high-functioning system. Tubby knows what he's doing.
6 - Finally paint me two scenarios. The first is a Texas loss, what went wrong for the Longhorns and will Blake Hoffarber be nominated for a third ESPY by nailing the game winner? Secondly Texas wins. What is the margin and what do they have to do right to move on to the second round?
One (Not At All Implausible) Way Texas Could Lose: Dexter Pittman picks up 2 fouls within the game's first 5 minutes... the Longhorns are anxious offensively throughout the first half, heaving up too many contested jump shots early in the shot clock... Minnesota is committed to and succeeds in keeping Texas from the offensive rebounding game which it often needs to win... and Dogus Balbay, with quick and disruptive Westbrook rattling his cage, loses confidence and tentatively retreats from dribble drives, crippling our half court spacing while convincing AJ Abrams that Texas' only chance to win is if he can fire off 20+ contested jumpers. (Scariest of all... the nightmare scenario is far, far too easy to imagine in reality.)
One (Not At All Implausible) Way Texas Could Win: Balbay does to Westbrook what he's done to every guard who's tried to stay in front of him(blow-by and wave on the way to a lay up or defense-disruptive drive that opens the floor for teammates)... Dexter Pittman exhibits good body control and is officiated fairly... Damion James avoids foul trouble, plays 37 minutes and clears 20 rebounds... Texas shoots fewer than 9 three point baskets... and Justin Mason, Clint Chapman, Varez Ward and Gary Johnson contribute modestly but efficiently, avoiding crippling mistakes.
Too vague and ambiguous? Sorry, that's Texas, and hey, at this point in the season... you are what you are. Enjoy the game, everyone.