February 17, 2009

There were signs of hope against Texas A&M

The Longhorns' 15-point loss at Texas A&M Monday night actually had some good news buried in it.

The good news is when Dogus Balbay was in the game for the first 12 minutes, he was attacking the rim and even if he missed, Damion James and Gary Johnson were there to put it back. James told me Sunday "sometimes our best offense is an offensive rebound."

He's right. Texas was in the flow of this offense until Balbay picked up that second foul with 7:58 left, went to the bench and Rick Barnes had Varez Ward replace him at the point. Instead of Ward attacking the rim as he's shown he can do, he settled for 3-point shots.

Bad idea. Ward was 1-of-18 from 3 this season before the A&M game. Now, he's 2-of-20. The problem is Texas - with five games left in the regular season - is only now figuring out the roles for players on this team. Barnes messed around with Justin Mason at the point to start the season, then moved to A.J. Abrams, then finally to Balbay.

Balbay is the answer at the point. Yes, he has no outside shot at the moment and teams can sag off of him. But that's another reason he has to keep going to the rim. Texas has the athletic ability in James and Johnson, and size - in Dexter Pittman - to get to the offensive glass and rebound any misses.

This is an offense that works. And it should be the focus of UT going forward. So the good news is Texas was in the flow of its offense and trailed only 22-18 when Balbay went to the bench. But did everyone see Balbay get tentative in the second half against A&M? Do you think that had anything to do with Balbay getting benched after playing two minutes in the Missouri game?

At this point, it seems Barnes needs to start assuring Balbay that short of flipping out and going Martin Lawrence or Nick Nolte, Balbay is going to be the primary option at the point. The kid needs confidence. He also needs to quit committing silly reach-in fouls and play great defense - I get that.

But Barnes is notoriously hard on his point guards. Like Jon Gruden on his quarterbacks. T.J. Ford had to assure Daniel Gibson over and over again to be ready for Barnes' harsh ways. "Listen to what he's saying, not how he says it," Ford would tell Gibson. Then D.J. Augustin had to be educated.

The problem is Barnes is dealing with a guy in Balbay who comes from another country, had never played major college basketball before this season - even though he's a sophomore. It might require more patience from Barnes, who often times sees something he doesn't like and moves on. Much like his decision to bench Balbay for all but two minutes against Missouri. Barnes says that move was important to Balbay's development. Maybe.

Barnes also said Sunday, "There's a lot of basketball still to be played." That's true. But it's also time to let Balbay know he's the guy at the point. That even when Barnes is upset with him and hard on him, Balbay is his guy for the rest of this season. UT's only chance to get on a roll heading into the NCAA Tournament is to have a confident Balbay attacking the rim with James, Johnson and Pittman attacking the offensive glass for putbacks. And to have Balbay driving and dishing to Atchley and Abrams for 3-pointers.

Pittman said it this week: Atchley is more confident when the point guard is drawing the defense the way Augustin did and then Atchley gets an open look.

There were signs of life in the beginning of that A&M game.

The roles appear to be clearing up. Here's my weak attempt at a pep talk to each player:

DOGUS BALBAY - Run the point and attack the rim. Quit dribbling around the perimeter, where no one is guarding you because your outside shot is not a threat. Get north and south. James and Johnson will follow you to the rim. Push the ball in transition and work on your free throws.

A.J. ABRAMS - Keep moving without the ball and find your open looks, but if you're blanketed by a defender like Michigan State's Travis Walton or Texas A&M's Derrick Roland - DRIVE! Put fouls on these defenders and get to the free throw line where you are money.

VAREZ WARD - Keep playing that shutdown defense, and save the 3-point shots for the off-season. Use those broad shoulders and strength to get to the rim and put fouls on people.

JUSTIN MASON - Get back to playing great defense and also attack the rim. Being aggressive is what meant to much to this team last year in the NCAA Tournament. James and Johnson will be there to clean up any misses.

CONNOR ATCHLEY - Block shots as only White Out can and be confident in that 3-point shot when an open look presents itself. This team thrives on your defense (blocks are great momentum changers), but also needs your offense.

DAMION JAMES - Shoot with confidence. You can hit from 3-point range, the 15-footer and on drives. Start with the drives and work your way out each game. If the 3s are falling great, but don't let those hits or misses on 3s dictate the rest of your game. The NBA can wait. The money will be there.

GARY JOHNSON - Almost the same as Damion, except skip the 3-pointers. Without lowering your shoulder, be aggressive going to the rim. Stick that 15-foot jumper and work on your free throw shooting because you are going to be there a lot.

DEXTER PITTMAN - Keep playing with confidence. Know that you can do things no one else can inside. Be honest about when you're getting tired. But you've been a spark and incredibly efficient for this team lately. Keep it up.

MATT HILL - Block shots and rebound.

CLINT CHAPMAN - Stay positive. Your time is coming. If not this season, when Atchley moves on next season. You're too talented not to be on the floor. Don't worry about the hook when you get out there. Play relaxed. Block shots and rebound because that will keep you on the floor, but have confidence in that stroke when you get an open look. Bring energy. Be aggressive.

FINAL ANALYSIS: A mega-confident Oklahoma team with Blake Griffin coming into Austin Saturday may be just what Texas needs. What an opportunity. If the Longhorns could take down the Sooners, it would be a massive jolt heading into the homestretch. OU isn't that deep. If you can defend Griffin - and UT has fouls to give in the post - the Sooners could be vulnerable. The fans could help by making the Hum Drum deafening. Varez Ward is probably going to have to play a lot in this game to check Austin Johnson or Willie Warren. But Texas has to be attacking the rim from the beginning (not settling for Abrams' 3s) - and that starts with a confident Balbay.

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