Monday, March 24, 2008

Securing Home Court

The Longhorns did what was expected of them in the first two rounds, making their way through Little Rock and securing home court advantage for as long as they stay in the tournament. Texas defeated #15 Austin Peay on Friday and #7 Miami (FL) on Sunday.

In both games the Longhorns came out of the gates very quickly and seized control of the game, jumping out to early leads and shooting well. The defensive pressure was intense in both games, and they were focused early. This was a great sign as most teams pick up the confidence to hang around and pull upsets in the first 10 minutes.

In both games, AJ Abrams led the way scoring, getting free and knocking down open looks. It almost seems like both Austin Peay and Miami (FL) didn't exactly understand that you can give Abrams any space. And with his quick release, any free space he will get off a clean shot. It will be interesting to see if Stanford makes the adjustment, because with the amount of time Abrams got in the first two rounds he will continue to put up spectacular shooting numbers.

Damion James and Connor Atchley also had great games in the first two rounds. Damion has been active on the boards and been aggressive around the rim. Connor's play was a breathe of fresh air as he got back on track shooting from three point range and played some solid defense, though he got in foul trouble in both games. Damion's performance against Miami was especially impressive as he pulled down 16 rebounds and added 16 points to the cause.

Justin Mason continued his spectacular play over the last month as he played great on the offensive and defensive end. He limited McClinton of Miami, who had 38 in round 1, much of the game, and in the process disrupted much of Miami's offense. Offensively he continued to drive and dish, slicing the defense and creating easy baskets for the Texas bigs. But most of all he once again is setting the tone for Texas' intensity, flying around the court and out hustling every other player on the court.

The other pleasant surprise was the play of Dexter Pittman who added solid minutes off the bench. In the Austin Peay game it helped that he was 5 inches and 50 pounds bigger than everyone else, but he continued his solid play in the Miami game. If Dex or any of the other big men continue to contribute it takes a ton of pressure off the starting lineup to stay out of foul trouble and carry the load. It was also a welcome sight to see Gary Johnson return to the floor after missing the last week with a strained calf muscle. Getting Johnson back into the rotation will become more and more important in the upcoming games.

For as well as Texas played, a few concerns came up after the first two games. For as well as the Longhorns came out and seized the momentum of the game in each of the first two games, they didn't put their opponents away. Against Austin Peay, they took the Governors out of their game, quickly erasing any hope of their upset. But after jumping out to a 15 point lead, it stayed there for much of the game, leaving Austin Peay at striking distance throughout. The same thing happened against Miami, as the Hurricanes stayed within about 13 points for most of the second half. Then our worst fears came true as Miami went on a run, seized momentum and almost stole a game they had no business being in.

The frantic comeback attempt made by Miami brought to light a concern that hadn't really reared its ugly head in the past month, but it apparently was still there. Texas' free throw shooting down the stretch was pretty much atrocious and will be a major concern from here on out. Atchley, James, and Augustin were all exposed at the line late in the game, and Mason missed 3 of 4 earlier in the game. Probably from here on out, Texas is going to find itself in close games, and free throw shooting down the stretch will be essential. And right now, AJ Abrams is the only one that anyone feels comfortable with on the line.

The interior defense was also a bit of a concern against Miami. The perimeter defense was solid, but early on, Miami's big men were able to score inside and cause problems for the Texas defense. It got a little bit better as the game went on, but with Stanford's twin towers on the horizon, Texas' interior defense will need to be nothing short of spectacular if Texas hopes to advance against the Cardinal. Connor Atchley desperately needs to stay out of foul trouble and Gary Johnson, Wangmene, Pittman, and Chapman need to play solid, consistent defense. Brook Lopez shoot free throws extremely well and if he gets too deep he will score. But if you can get him 8 or more feet from the basket he becomes a decidely less effective player. Texas players will need to out work him in the post.

I'm not sure if this last one is a concern, but with the play of Abrams and James in the first two games, DJ Augustin hasn't needed to do much. But it also makes me a little bit weary that he hasn't shot well, has made some poor decisions, and hasn't been extremely effective. He has played well, but I think that DJ will need to give even more to the Longhorns if they hope to advance. Especially with Stanford's size inside, DJ needs to be more judicious in when he goes to the basket and when he relies on his mid range game. DJ Augustin hasn't played like an All-American yet, and we need him to be an All-American if we hope to continue the march to San Antonio. And it would help if he didn't air ball any free throws.

All in all, Texas looked impressive in the opening weekend, except for five minutes against Miami. So let's say that things are looking good, and that was a pre-arranged agreement between Rick Barnes and his old friend Frank Haith.

Bring on the Cardinal.

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