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November 26, 2013

Texas hammers DePaul 77-59

A night after their first loss of the season to BYU in a close contest, the Longhorns (5-1) had to turn right back around and play DePaul (3-3) in Kansas City before making the return trip back home. And with its best performance of the year, Texas showed that it would respond after a loss, play well, and made the most out of the trip with an impressive, 77-59 win over the Blue Demons. Some thoughts:

1) Cameron freaking Ridley. Would it be knee-jerk to think that this Kansas City trip was the most important two-game stretch of his career? Maybe. But there is no denying that after a double-double against BYU, the sophomore big man played his best game of the season, and his career, against DePaul. Ridley was a constant force on the offensive end showing the ability to finish near the rim, score with his back to the basket, find open cutters, handle the press, get fouled and make free throws, and make an impact on the offensive glass. He also played strong defensively, gave great effort for 31 minutes, and even beat the entire defense back up the floor for a wide open dunk in transition.

Ridley finished with a career-high 19 points (6-of-8 shooting from the floor; 7-of-8 from the free-throw line), nine rebounds (five offensive), one assist, one block, two turnovers, and one steal. I believe his only two missed field goals were actually a missed alley-oop and a missed dunk. This offseason, we reported that there was buzz behind the scenes about the 6-9 sophomore's improvement. We're starting to see it.

Ridley is in much better shape and is playing with a high-level of confidence that is allowing his improved skills to show more often. If this sort of performance carries over, Texas coaches would be ecstatic. What may have been most impressive about Ridley's performance was how hard and how well he worked to get into position in the paint and demand the basketball.

2) Perimeter defense, especially in a zone, has been a problem for the Longhorns. However, it was much improved against DePaul. The Blue Demons hit on just 29.4 percent of their three-pointers (5-of-17) and Texas' zone held them to just three field goals in the final 15:55 of the first half. Texas rotated better, closed out better, and chased shooters off the line better. It still has to improve as there were breakdowns at times, but Texas showed it can defend the perimeter against a good shooting team.

3) Not only did Ridley play his best game as a Longhorn, but I thought Kendal Yancy did as well. The freshman guard did a very good job of attacking off the dribble from the wings, especially in transition. His aggressiveness allowed him to get to the rim and show his ability to finish while also forcing the defense to try to close out on him hard, which opened things up. Plus, Rick Barnes will probably be pleased with the defense Yancy played Tuesday night.

4) Texas was plus-26 on points in the paint, plus-10 in second-chance points, and plus-20 (!!!) on the glass including plus-eight on the offensive glass. That's a reflection of effort, toughness, and aggressiveness. It was also against one of the tallest teams in the country.

Oh, and Jon Holmes was again diving for loose balls with 30 seconds left and Texas up 18 points. His quiet, lead-by-example leadership strategy is becoming very infectious because he plays his ass off each minute he's on the floor. The junior finished with 10 points, six rebounds, a block and a steal. He posted that line in just 15 minutes of action.

5) Freshman Damarcus Croaker again got the start tonight and although he scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, he remained very aggressive offensively and made pretty good decisions for the most part. Barnes and his teammates will let him hear about missing that huge, tomahawk dunk attempt, though.

6) There was a point before the season when I thought Javan Felix was going to have to carry the scoring load in order for Texas to be successful. Well, he scored just two points tonight and Texas didn't need him because five players scored in double-digits. Before the season, UT players talked about the balance in scoring they expected to encounter, and they look correct, so far.

Here's what Barnes said on Friday about the distribution in scoring:

"When we started the season, I would have thought we'd have to rely on Javan Felix for a little bit more scoring," said Barnes. "But we don't have to rely on any one player to score. We have enough guys who can score, so we are not counting on any one guy. We'd like to have five or six guys in double figures. If we execute and do what we're supposed to do, I want guys taking their shots. In the system that we're in, they can make those plays."

Like last night against BYU, one of the things Barnes asks of his players is to take shots when they're open and take shots on time because it allows the bigs to know to go after the offensive glass. For the second straight game, we saw that.

7) I felt like there weren't as many points in the game when Texas' half-court offense became stagnant. I saw Texas use multiple sets to get guys offensive looks, and the movement away from the ball, as well as the ball movement, was strong.

Unlike earlier this season when I felt a very poor assist-to-turnover ratio was reflective of the ball movement, tonight's (9-to-15) wasn't.

It probably wasn't just a coincidence that this happened and Isaiah Taylor played 27 minutes one night after not appearing at all down the stretch. Taylor scored 14 points on just 3-of-6 field goals because he got to the line 10 times and hit eight free-throws.

8) If Connor Lammert can get a player his size or smaller on his back anywhere in the paint and can go left, he's going to score at a very high rate. It's a nice luxury for Texas that Lammert isn't a guy that demands touches and you have to run things for, but he's just there to get the rock and create. He only attempted three field goals, and both makes were moving jump hooks to his left. He also grabbed eight rebounds.

9) There wasn't a single Texas player that attempted double-digit field goals and Texas shot 23-of-28 from the free-throw line. Texas shot 50 percent (26-of-52) for the game. That's 1.48 points per field goal attempt, which is very impressive.

10) Texas would have obviously preferred to leave Kansas City with two wins instead of a split, but overall I feel like the Longhorns accomplished a lot this trip and moved forward in their development. We're starting to see individual players flash more often and a team growing together. I don't know how much this changes the season outlook, but I feel like Texas fans should have more hope about this group than at the beginning of the season.

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