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February 18, 2010
Rick Barnes has to answer the following question: What is the identity of this Texas team?
Don't get me wrong. Barnes is a hell of a basketball coach. He usually gets his teams to play defense and rebound. And doing those things will keep you in every game.
But once again Texas changed its demeanor from an attacking, running team at home (see Saturday's 40-point poleaxing of Nebraska) to a timid, reactive team with a highly questionable gameplan on the road. Is being a dominant running team only a home strategy?
On Wednesday night, Barnes let Missouri dictate the terms from the tip. Mizzou was going to run, and Texas was apparently going to hang on and try to win one late. Barnes will counter that his team can't run when it's turning the ball over 18 times (compared to Mizzou's 9 turnovers).
But his team was turning it over because Barnes was doing things like having Justin Mason and Avery Bradley running the point in this game after J'Covan Brown and Jai Lucas pushed the tempo in the Nebraska game.
THE BLAME GAME
Texas' meltdown since January can be blamed squarely on Barnes for not filling this team full of confidence as the up-tempo team it was in December when everything was working against teams like USC, North Carolina and Michigan State.
More and more, it's looking like Barnes broke something that didn't need fixing.
Instead of encouraging his team to keep running and wearing opponents out with UT's depth (while continuing to teach his young freshmen the finer points of defense), it appears Barnes spent the month of January breaking down two players and destroying the confidence of the rest of his team.
On Wednesday at Mizzou, he made more decisions that had to leave his players wondering what was going on? (More on that in a minute.)
Now, he's running out of time to reconstruct his team's fragile psyche with road trips to Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor still on the schedule. And Barnes still doesn't have an identity for a team that opened the season No. 2 in the country.
Barnes tried to blame the inability of his freshmen (J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton) to grasp simple principles for holding the team back during a 2-5 stretch that was snapped after a 91-51 drubbing of Nebraska.
He said he'd rather "die a slow death" than play those two and reinforce bad habits. Who is he going to blame now?
Hamilton had 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting for Texas and kept UT in the game for much of the second half, although he went 1-of-6 from the foul line.
Brown had 9 points on 4-of-10 shooting with 2 assists, 1 turnover and 1 steal and didn't shoot a single free throw.
Avery Bradley had 15 points on 7-of-18 shooting but also had 4 turnovers. Dogus Balbay and Dexter Pittman also had 4 turnovers apiece.
Brown, Pittman and Damion James (18 points, 11 rebounds) all had two fouls in the first half and had to sit. James played only 10 minutes in the first half. Pittman only 8.
The easy scapegoat in this one will be Pittman, who played one of his worst games as a Longhorn (2 pts on 0-of-0 shooting, 2-2 FT, 4 rebounds, 0 assists, 4 turnovers, 2 blocks and 4 personal fouls).
"Obviously we like to establish something inside with Dexter (Pittman)," Barnes said. "But he's still playing way too fast. And he's not getting ready to catch the ball and do something out of the dribble.
"He kept pivoting and walking with the basketball. I think you've got to give Missouri a lot of credit. They do a great job of pressuring the basketball. And I thought we weren't as poised as we needed to be. And we didn't look inside enough early in the first half."
Added Missouri F Keith Ramsey, "I think it was our pressure. [Dexter] Pittman was so worried about us doubling up on him he tried to get his shots off really quick, and he kept on traveling. He ended up having to come out, so it worked out for us."
But this team, which has one of the most talented rosters in the country, doesn't play with confidence. It plays timid. Especially in a half-court game. Especially on the road.
"When we get those younger guys in, we take guys like (Dogus) Balbay out of the game, and we lose a lot of toughness," Barnes said. "Our younger guys right now just don't understand you need to be a little tougher in there. Nobody could really handle the ball today for us. And it was just really surprising to me that no one could handle Missouri's pressure."
Missouri began the game with an 8-0 run in the opening two minutes of the half. The Tigers scored nine of their first 11 points off of four Texas turnovers in the half's first three minutes.
We can nitpick the mistakes made when Texas had the Missouri game within reach in the second half.
--Missed layups by Dogus Balbay and Damion James.
--Key turnovers by Dexter Pittman and J'Covan Brown.
--Shoddy defense on Mizzou's Kim English, who scored 11 of his 18 points in a six-minute spurt in the second half.
But the constant this season is a team that plays without swagger or confidence on the road. Barnes acts like he refuses to trust his talent to go up-tempo in a hostile environment. You don't think the players sense that?
"I thought Dogus (Balbay) really should have been going by people," Barnes said. "We really wanted to get to the free-throw line in the first half. I think that you really need to drive against a team like Missouri, and we didn't do that enough tonight.
"Again, it goes back to the turnovers; they did a great job of getting in passing lanes. But that goes back to driving the basketball, that is how you get good looks against Missouri, and we didn't do that."
Get to the free-throw line? Dogus Balbay attack as part of the offensive gameplan? Balbay doesn't even make layups, let alone free throws.
J'Covan Brown is the only player who makes free throws. And he didn't attempt a single one Wednesday night, in large part because he wasn't running the point.
Barnes apparently didn't trust him to handle Missouri's pressure. You don't think the rest of the team senses that lack of confidence? When Texas wins by 40 with Brown at the point and then he isn't allowed to run it four days later, the team senses that. It's called doubt. (And Brown only had 1 turnover.)
Sometimes I wonder if Barnes has a feel for how his decisions impact the confidence of his team.
ON THE ATTACK? OR UNDER ATTACK?
This stat shows how little Texas was attacking on offense: The Horns shot only two FTs in the second half (making both), while Mizzou was 15-of-18 from the foul line in the second half.
Mizzou was 25 of 29 from the FT line (82.8 percent), so Texas can blame its 52.6 percent FT shooting (10 of 19) against Mizzou and its 61 percent FT shooting in conference play and its 62 percent FT shooting for the year.
But if you were to say before the season Texas would be 6-5 in the Big 12 with five games left, including road trips to Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor, you would have been collared and asked, "Have you been hanging out with Harold and Kumar?"
Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com told OB last week only two teams would not trade for Texas' talent - Kansas coach Bill Self and Kentucky coach John Calipari.
The bottom line is Rick Barnes is running out of chances to jumpstart his team's season. It's still not too late. But when is he going to quit jacking with the roles on this team and commit to being a running team? When is he going to commit to trusting his players to go up-tempo on the road?
Against Missouri, most of J'Covan Brown's 26 minutes of game action weren't even spent at the point. There was an uneven rotation at the point of everyone from J'Covan, Justin Mason, Dogus Balbay and even Avery Bradley.
With seemingly everyone on the team getting a shot to play the point, Jai Lucas didn't play a single second after playing 20 minutes against Nebraska. And the two point guards who really push tempo for Texas are Brown and Lucas.
Shouldn't the point guard position have been settled weeks ago? Is a road game at Missouri the time to start auditioning new point guards after the show Brown and Lucas put on Saturday?
WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG
If this season crashes and burns the way it appears it might, Barnes, will have to look back and determine if breaking down two players was worth all the damage it seems to have done.
The confidence of big man Dexter Pittman appears to have been shattered by making him play 3-on-5 for most of January. Another one of Barnes' offensive weapons with NBA aspirations last season, Connor Atchley, had a similar loss of confidence.
This year's Texas players like each other. They really can be explosive offensively. They certainly were in December, when they played only two games outside of Texas. But as soon as they went on the road in January, against Kansas State, Texas stopped running, stopped playing with swagger and stopped winning.
Barnes expressed just how determined he was to break J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton of their "bad habits" in January. That stubbornness took Texas out of its up-tempo offense and landed Dogus Balbay and Justin Mason on the floor together in the starting lineup for 18 straight games.
And there they were - Balbay and Mason - on the floor together again Wednesday night - for long stretches. And that wasn't even the problem. The problem is this team totally comes unraveled on the road, in large part, because the team tries to be something it's not.
"I wouldn't say they were scared, but our pressure really got to them," said Missouri guard J.T. Tiller. "When we were making plays in the second half, we could really see in their demeanor that we were starting to wear on them."
UP NEXT: Texas (20-6, 6-5 Big 12) at Texas Tech (16-9, 4-7) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Lubbock on ESPN. That's got to be win, right?
Currently, Texas (6-5) is the No. 6 seed in the Big 12 Tournament behind Kansas (11-0), Kansas State (8-3), Texas A&M (7-4), Baylor (7-4) and Missouri (7-4) with Oklahoma State (6-5) nipping at UT's heels.