January 13, 2009

The BIG Review: Big (Monday) Letdown

When the 2008-09 season reaches its eventual conclusion, the No.11 Texas Longhorns are going to look back at their night in Norman and they'll know that it was either the beginning of the end or the birthplace of a new resolve.

Only time will tell which storyline prevails.

On a night when the starting point guard and All-America candidate at forward were benched for poor play, the Longhorns appeared to be a team that is at a major crossroads in their season after being thrashed 78-63 by the Sooners.

Despite a 12-4 record and a lofty ranking, the Longhorns have been a leaking ship in recent weeks and on Monday night they finally capsized, as the Sooners jumped out to a 24-8 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game.

Only an early pair of A.J. Abrams three-point shots in the opening minutes kept the Longhorn offense from completely drowning early on, as the team committed eight turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the game.

"The first 10 minutes killed us," A.J. Abrams, who finished with 22 points on 8-of-27-shooting, said. We didn't come out with the right intensity, and they kind of brought it to us the first 10 minutes."

While all of that was going on, Barnes benched juniors Justin Mason and Damion James for uninspired play.

Yet with everything that was going wrong for the Longhorns early on, they battled back over the final nine minutes of the first half like you would expect them to, closing to within six points at one point before a 9-4 run to close the half gave the Sooners a 38-27 lead at the break.

Once the Longhorns returned to the floor for the final 20 minutes, James' returned to the line-up and gave the Longhorns a spirited second-half performance after being held scoreless and without a rebound in the first 20 minutes. He scored 12 second half points, including a three-point shot with 11:15 remaining in the game that cut the lead to 54-50.

However, moments after that shot Barnes took James out of the game because he had picked up three fouls in quick fashion and it was at that point that the game just got away from Texas.

If the beginning of the game was enough to make Barnes want to cringe, well, the final 11 minutes of the game were likely enough to make Barnes simply turn away in horror.

Over the course of the next 6 minutes the Longhorns failed to score on nine straight possessions and by the time sophomore guard Dogus Balbay knocked down an 18-foot jump shot with 4:44 remaining in the game, Oklahoma had opened up a 66-52 lead.

Game. Set. Match.

"I think we did a good job of fighting back, but late in the game it kind of got away from us," Abrams said.

The early pole position in the Big 12 race suddenly belongs to the Sooners, who were led by Blake Griffin's 20 points and 10 rebounds, and the Longhorns are left with nothing but a bunch of questions.

Inside the Numbers
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The Longhorns finished the night 23 of 68 from the field (33.8 percent), 5-of-23 (21.7 percent) from three-point land and were 12 of 14 (85.7 percent) from the free throw line. On the other side of the court, the Sooners shot a blistering 50.9 percent (27-of-53) shooting from the field, 40.0 percent (4-of-10) from beyond the arc and they shot 66.7 percent (20-of-30) from the charity stripe. The Longhorns beat Oklahoma in rebounds (42-39), second-chance points (17-13), bench points (19-3), fast-break points (12-6), assists (14-12) and forced turnovers (14-13). Meanwhile, Oklahoma edged the Longhorns in points in the paint (34-28), points off turnovers (16-14), blocks (6-5) and steals (8-7).

Star of the game

There weren't many bright spots in this performance, but sophomore point guard Dogus Balbay had the best night of his young career with a career-high eight points (4-of-5 from the floor), six assists, seven rebounds, a steal, a block and only one turnover in 28 minutes. On a night when starting point guard Justin Mason had one of the worst games of his career, Balbay played with poise and gave the team a real shot in the arm. It was almost as if the two players switched bodies for the night.

Unsung hero

Things were so out of whack in the first half that seldom-used back-up guard Harrison Smith played 14 minutes in the first half and actually knocked down a big three-point shot that helped settle team down after a terrible start. More than anything, Smith played with a sense of purpose and passion that was missing from most of the starting line-up. He was not out-of-this-world good, but he played well enough and hard enough to warrant additional playing time in the next game. If nothing else, he gives the team a second three-point shooter from the backcourt.

Tough day at the office

Where does one even start?

Justin Mason - He threw up a bunch of bagels on the offensive end. Zero shots. Zero free throw attempts. Zero points. Outside of three assists in 17 minutes, there wasn't much of a sign that he was even on the floor Monday night.

Damion James - Nice second half, but it took being benched for most of the first half to get him into a proper mental state for the game. That's freshmen stuff and not the make-up of a lottery pick.

Connor Atchley - Until a thunderous dunk over Blake Griffin in the final minute, the fifth-year senior had been 0-of-5 from the floor, including 0-of-3 from three-point range. While his defense was solid, he was another guy that just didn't make any impression on this game in a good way. In 27 minutes of action, it took 26 of them to occur before he produced.

Gary Johnson - Oh, he played hard. You know he's going to give you that much. He played hard, but he didn't always play well, especially on offense, as he connected on 1-of-6 shots and just didn't play aggressively enough at times on offense, which means that he didn't finish enough. He has to make sure that he's not falling in love with his jump shot when it truly represents a piece of his game and not the majority of it. The Longhorns needed Blake and Taylor Griffin in foul trouble more than they needed anything else and the lack of aggressiveness on this night was a key area of concern.

The elephant in the room that we have o talk about

When is this team going to amp it up and start making the types of improvements that high NCAA Tournament seeds are usually making by mid-January?

It seems like all season we've talked about Atchley's offensive funk, James' uneven play and anyone in the backcourt outside of Abrams not being able to knock down a jump shot.

We keep waiting for Varez Ward to start playing better on the offensive end and we keep waiting for Clint Chapman to play like the skilled big man that he is instead of a lost soul.

One of the few things that this team has been able to count on is a steady hand from Mason, but he's gone into a bit of a funk in the past two games, as he's stopped creating on either end of the floor and the confidence in his offensive game seems to be regressing. This team just doesn't have enough shooters at its disposal for Mason to be shooting 16.7 percent from the three-point range.

This team can only go as far as Mason takes them and everyone across the nation got a glimpse of what the Longhorns can look like when Mason is a non-factor.

It wasn't pretty.

Top three plays of the night

Bronze - The Longhorns opened up with a quick 5-0 surge to start the second half when Abrams knocked down a three-point shot and James converted a steal into a dunk. That sequence announced that the Longhorns were ready to play at the start of the second half, even if they did fold at the end.

Silver - Balbay had a couple of very nice offensive finishes in this game, but his 18-foot jump shot ended a near-seven minute offensive collapse and the fact that he seemed to shoot the ball with more confidence than anyone else on the team outside of Abrams, James and Mason was telling.

Gold - The high point of the night came when James knocked down a three-point shot to cut the lead to 54-50 with more than half of the second half to play.

Longhorn Dunk O'Meter

All season long we plan to keep a running tally on which Longhorns are flying above the rim the most. After throwing down four dunks in their win over Iowa State, the Longhorns repeated the number against the Sooners.

Here's tonight's scoreboard:

Damion James - 2
Connor Atchley - 1
Dexter Pittman - 1

Here's the season scorecard:

Damion James - 23
Dexter Pittman - 18
Gary Johnson - 6
Justin Mason - 6
Connor Atchley - 5
Clint Chapman - 4
Alexis Wangmene - 1

The BIG number

6:31

You can go more than six minutes without a point in the final 10 minutes of a game against a top-five team on the road and expect to win. We've seen this team go through offensive droughts in the past, but not twice in the same game.


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