February 17, 2009

The BIG Review: UT takes a big step back

Dogus Balbay, Connor Atchley and Gary Johnson in foul trouble. Missed free throws. A.J. Abrams on lockdown by the Aggies. Damion James on lockdown by his own mind in the first half. Pick a reason for UT's demoralizing, 81-66 loss at Texas A&M on Big Monday.

No matter the reason, the Longhorns lost their fifth straight in College Station and once again find themselves flirting with .500 in Big 12 play at 6-5. UT has a huge showdown with No. 2 Oklahoma at home on Saturday up next.

Texas nearly erased a 19-point deficit with 12:42 left (58-39). But the Longhorns could get no closer than four points (61-57) with 7:45 left on a free throw by James.

The lead would have been cut to three points, but James hit only one of two free throws - a problem symptomatic of the entire team. Texas was just 12 of 19 from the foul line (63.2 percent), while A&M hit 18 of 21 from the line. UT has been miserable from the line all season (66.2 percent coming into Monday), and the Longhorns suffered 15 turnovers in this mess - nine in the first half.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

All the talk coming into Monday's game was about the impact Dogus Balbay was having at point guard for UT. How he had 14 assists and two turnovers in his first two career starts against Oklahoma State and at Colorado.

But Balbay picked up his second foul with 7:58 left in the first half and Texas trailing by a manageable 22-18. Balbay went to the bench for the rest of the first half, and the offense lost its rhythm with Varez Ward at point guard. UT left the floor at halftime trailing 35-28 to the taunts of a frenzied, sellout crowd at Reed Arena.

Throw in the fact that Atchley went to the bench with his second foul at the 13:43 mark of the first half, and UT was missing two key contributors for much of the first half. Balbay's foul trouble made him tentative at times, and he ended up fouling out with 56 seconds left.

STAR OF THE GAME

Gary Johnson was aggressive from the beginning and finished 8-of-14 shooting for 17 points and four offensive rebounds, but foul trouble limited him to only 24 minutes. Johnson finished with four fouls and had to sit long stretches in the second half.

UNSUNG HERO

Dexter Pittman was a force inside for Texas, collecting six of his 10 rebounds on the offensive end and finishing 7-of-8 from the foul line on his way to 13 points and a double-double in 20 minutes of play. Pittman fouled out with 2:15 left.

TOUGH DAY AT THE OFFICE

The stars of the game for A&M were Derrick Roland and Dash Harris, who blanketed Abrams and held him to 0-of-4 shooting in the first half and 3-of-12 for the game (1-of-7 from 3-point range). Abrams had averaged just nine points in his last three games against A&M and finished with only seven Monday, 10 below his average.

As good as Abrams was scoring 29 points and making smart, hustle plays against Colorado, he settled for jump shots against A&M. He should have been getting the ball on dribble handoffs and trying to get to the rim to draw fouls on Roland and Harris, who were denying him by beating Abrams to spots on the floor. But Abrams, who has shown he can drive on occasion, just won't commit to this part of his game. Until he does, he will be a one-dimensional scorer.

A&M also took advantage of a recurring weakness of the Longhorns by beating Texas down the floor in transition. A&M point guard Donald Sloan repeatedly raced the ball down the floor before UT could get its defense set up. When Sloan and Roland weren't attacking the basket, Texas was losing track of Josh Carter and B.J. Holmes, who each hit three 3-pointers. A&M big men Bryan Davis and Chinemelu Elonu also ate the Longhorns alive inside, combining to hit 10-of-16 from close range for a team-leading 15 points apiece.

On Sunday, I asked Rick Barnes about his team's porous defense in the second halves of the last five games (teams were hitting 50.4 percent of their shots in the final 20 minutes of those contests). He said he was fine with his team's defense in the victories against Oklahoma State and Colorado. He won't be pleased with Monday's performance as the Aggies shot 49.1 percent (28 of 57), including 43.8 percent from 3 (7-of-16). This team still lets its offense affect its defense and really missed Balbay when he was on the bench.

THE BENCH

While Pittman gave Texas a solid effort off the pine, Atchley, Matt Hill and Ward were almost non-factors. Ward hit his second 3-pointer of the season (2-of-20). But where is Clint Chapman?

Barnes is sticking with Hill because he thinks Hill is a better defender and rebounder. But Chapman is a streaky player - offensively and defensively - and needs a chance to see if he's on. He can block shots and rebound when he puts his mind to it. He's also more aggressive offensively than Hill. But he's not even getting a chance lately. This is the second straight game in which Chapman didn't even get on the floor. Chapman has even been good lately in practice, according to Barnes. So that's a head-scratcher.

TOP THREE PLAYS OF THE GAME

Bronze -
Dogus Balbay driving to the rim and missing a layup, only to have Gary Johnson come flying through the lane for a putback jam and a 7-4 lead with 16:46 left in the first half. This is the kind of offense Texas ended up missing with Balbay sitting most of the half. Texas' best offense is often times Balbay getting a shot up on the rim with his big men following and cleaning up any misses.

Silver - Abrams missing a 3-point attempt, only to have Damion James collect the rebound and jam it with 11:52 left in the game.

Gold - James and Atchley both hitting 3s within two minutes of each other as part of a 15-1 run that helped cut a 19-point deficit down to four with seven and a half minutes left.

LONGHORN DUNK-O-METER

Dunks in the Texas A&M game:

Damion James - 2
Gary Johnson - 1
Dexter Pittman - 1

Dunks for the season:

Damion James - 39
Dexter Pittman - 31
Gary Johnson - 8
Justin Mason - 7
Clint Chapman - 5
Connor Atchley - 5
Varez Ward - 1
Alexis Wangmene - 1

THE BIG NUMBER

3-2


That's the record I see Texas finishing with in its last five games. I think UT loses to OU on Saturday, beats Texas Tech in Austin, beats Oklahoma State in Stillwater (the Cowboys play no defense), beats Baylor in Austin and loses at Kansas.

That probably wouldn't be good enough to get a bye in the Big 12 Tournament as a top-four seed because Kansas State is also 6-5 and has what appears to be an easier remaining Big 12 sked (at Iowa State, at Missouri, Nebraska, at Oklahoma State and Colorado). K-State should probably go 4-1 in last five league games.

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