February 19, 2008

UT making improvements at the right time

The No.7 Texas Longhorns began the season with wins that caught the attention of college basketball fans around the country. After the 7-0 start, including wins over Tennessee in New Jersey and UCLA in Los Angeles, the Longhorns began a downward slide playing a 13-game stretch marred with inconsistent defense and offensive basketball in which Texas appeared as a team that played as individuals at times and not with the understanding of roles within the team concept.

The result was a 9-4 stretch with wins often appearing in the ugly variety. If the six-game winning streak that has followed is any indication, Texas has turned the corner with improved team defense and clearly defined offensive roles being the difference.

The streak

With the 77-50 win over Texas A&M on Monday, the Longhorns have put together a six-game winning streak. Included in the streak are five wins over top 50 RPI opponents in Baylor (twice), at Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas A&M.

Improved defense

The No.1 reason for the streak is the improvement in team defense with ball screen defense emerging as the turning point, as the interior defenders have greatly improved hedging and in early recognition. Since the loss in College Station, Texas is allowing opponents to shoot 37.6% from the floor and is surrendering only 64.5 points per game.

The defensive rotation in the paint has improved as well, leading to many blocked and changed shots, in addition to forcing tough interior passes. Connor Atchley has led the charge of the Texas shot blockers recently with 16 blocks in six games. Overall, the team has blocked 6.3 shots per game. Before the streak, Texas was averaging 4.8 swats per game.

The ball pressure on the perimeter has improved greatly. A.J. Abrams' on-ball defense against taller wing players like Wesley Johnson, Brandon Rush and Josh Carter has been terrific. His ability to stick to the scorers like glue and torment them off the dribble has been key as none of the three have gotten into a rhythm in any game.

Justin Mason has been just as good on the ball and in rotation. Mason has made a dozen or more help defensive plays that have resulted in blocked shots, steals, charges or turnovers in recent games.

Taking care of the ball

The Longhorns lead the nation in turnovers per game and have for the majority of the season. In the last six, the Longhorns have turned the ball over just 9.2 times per game to go with 13.4 assists. The assists are up from the season average and the turnovers are down.

D.J. Augustin has 41 assists and just 10 turnovers during the span.

Rebounding

The Longhorns have proven over the season that will not be a dominating team on the glass. What they have proved though is that they can be competitive on the glass with every team. Gary Johnson and Mason have been the difference.

Johnson is sound and consistent blocking out. He has averaged 6.5 rebounds during the streak, but his physical blocking out has helped lead to his teammates securing defensive rebounds on a number of occasions.

Mason has taken his offensive and defensive rebounding to another level as well. The sophomore guard is pulling down 5.3 rebounds in the last six games, with many proving to be the difference between winning and losing tight games.

Texas knows what they will get from Damion James and Atchley on a consistent basis, which makes the play of Johnson and Mason on the glass the key.

The bench

The Texas team has struggled with play off the bench this season. With the loss of Dogus Balbay before the season, the guard depth took a hit. The heart condition of Johnson provided a second hit early on. Both players were counted on as difference makers and keys in the rotation.

Johnson was cleared to play on January 2nd, but he showed his youth in his first four starts, but is now giving the Longhorns big minutes off the bench as the sixth man. With 13 games under his belt, Johnson has now become a key contributor on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, Texas is running sets with the purpose getting the ball to the freshman power forward on the low blocks. He has improved his timing as a screener and is now properly rolling with the correct spacing. Against A&M, he hit a pair of elbow jumpers off of the screen and roll.

Defensively, his ball screen defense has improved greatly. He was being split on nearly every occasion in his first handful of games, but has adjusted to the quickness level and is now under control and physical hedging. Johnson is the only Longhorn post man that has the ability to play with bent knees and dislodge the opponents big man consistently, so he has added a dimension to the team defense in that regard as well.

During the six-game stretch, Johnson has averaged 9.7 points and 6.5 rebounds.

Johnson hasn't been the only help off the bench. Texas has received 14.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in the last four games from the quartet of Johnson, Dexter Pittman, Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene.

Players stepping up

The recent shooting slump of Augustin could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the team. Texas became dependent on the sophomore point guard carrying the team offensively and that is not when the Longhorns are at their best.

Texas is at their best when the ball is moving and players are making plays for each other. The flow is much better and the job of the defense in rotation much tougher.

The staff has begun to run sets for Johnson on the low block , while using Augustin and Abrams on the wings with more consistency.

The Longhorns are a tough team to defend when Augustin attacks off the bounce from the wing.

In the last six games, Augustin has accounted for 20.2% of the Longhorns scoring after accounting for 26.2% the first 20-games. Part of the differential comes from his slump shooting the ball, but also due to the emergence of others adding scoring punch.

The result

The result of the winning streak is the Longhorns appear to looking squarely at a No.2 seed in the NCAA Tournament with five regular season games remaining. The RPI is up to No.5r and strength of schedule is No.3.

With the win over the Aggies, Texas is 9-3 against top 50 RPI teams. The nine wins this year is tied for the most in a season at Texas under Rick Barnes.

In addition to the NCAA Tournament resume being strengthened significantly, the Longhorns are tied with the Kansas Jayhawks for the lead in the conference title race with Kansas State one game behind in the win column.


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