The Texas Longhorns said before the season started that they would score points, and wanted to play in high scoring games. So far, they aren't lying.
Tuesday afternoon's contest against Rhode Island was a bit of a rollercoaster for Rick Barnes and the Longhorns - not exactly shocking for a team that plays six freshmen and just three other recruited, scholarship players. The Longhorns raced out to a lead, let things briefly slip away and then pulled away in the second half for a 100-90 win to improve to 2-0 on the season. There were a ton of points scored, a career-best performance, some defensive breakdowns, some defensive highlights and evidence that this UT team is still a work in progress. But it's a very talented work in progress that flashed great potential against the Rams.
"Staying together when times get tough," said J'Covan Brown last Wednesday during the preseason UT media session when asked what this year's Texas team needs to do to be successful. "We're going to have to find a way. We're going to find ways to get around it when things aren't going our way."
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Against Boston University to start the season, there were no tough times for the Horns in their 82-46 blowout victory. However, in game number two of the season Texas faced some tough stretches. Up 17 points at one instance in the first half, the young Horns watched as the lead evaporated thanks to a 20-7 run by Rhode Island before halftime. Texas got a bit sloppy, got complacent and struggled some defensively. UT led just 46-43 at halftime.
Rhode Island continued to battle for the lead early in the second half, and cut it to just a one-point UT advantage several times. Then, the highlight of the young 2011-2012 season happened at the 13:12 mark in the second half. The moment Rhode Island took a 59-58 lead, the Horns started running, and that run started with an emphatic, in-your-face alley-oop slam from Sheldon McClellan via a dish in transition from Brown. McClellan's rim-rocker immediately brought former Longhorns, and current NBA players, Kevin Durant and Tristan Thompson, out of their seats courtside and onto the court. It was the big momentum shift Texas needed, and the Horns gave themselves a great cushion with the increased defensive intensity moments after McClellan converted the free throw after being fouled on his two-hand slam.
Before you could blink, Texas turned a 61-58 lead into a 71-59 advantage after Brown drilled a three-pointer which forced Rhode Island to call a timeout. Brown, who finished with a career high 35 points on 10-of-12 shooting from the floor, went into takeover mode and the Rams could never get back in the game. UT led by 15 at one point and the Rams never got within eight of Texas. Behind great free throw shooting - Texas converted 35-of-44 attempts at the line - the Horns were able to keep the game out of reach.
"When you are sitting there as a coach, you like that comfort (of having the lead)," Barnes stated after the win. "But, when you look back at it, it was probably a good thing in the long run. I thought it showed something when we took the lead. We had good plays and effort, some intensity-type things like Jonathan Holmes' rebounds."
Texas had five players in double figures, and seven UT players played 20 minutes or more. For the 10th straight season in a row, the Longhorns start the season 2-0.
CAREER-HIGH FOR BROWN; HORNS ATTACK OFF THE BOUNCE
Want to make a UT fan cringe? Ask him or her about the free throw shooting at Texas over the last few seasons. Even Shaquille O'Neal thought it was ugly. Well, that's a bit of a stretch, but it was that bad at times.
When you mention "free throws" to UT fans this season, their heart rate won't immediately jump into triple digits. One of the good things around a team that is so guard oriented is that it should be a good shooting team at the charity stripe. So far, this Texas team is, and there is no reason to think it won't be at the end of the season. In addition to the guards, the big men shoot the rock well from the free throw line. Combine that with officiating around college basketball being a bit tighter, and you have a recipe for a ton of points from the line.
Against Rhode Island, the Horns were able to score 100 points on just 59 shots because they hit on 35-of-44 free throw attempts. The quickness of Brown, Myck Kabongo and others led to lots of time spent at the line.
"What we were showed from the officials' tape at the start of the year, that's what they were supposed to do," responded Barnes when asked about the heavy amount of free throws. "That's the way it's going to be called every night. I like it because I think we have a pretty good free throw shooting team."
Barnes is right. He does have a good free throw shooting team. Alexis Wangmene has one of the softest touches on the team from the line, Holmes made 7-of-8 free throws Tuesday night and Clint Chapman is above average from the charity stripe.
Speaking of Holmes, he opened some eyes tonight with his ability to attack off the bounce from the perimeter. On two separate occasions, the 6-7 freshman received a swing pass at the top of the key and didn't waste any time to put the ball on the floor in order to aggressively attack the paint and finish. He can certainly handle the rock and can get to the rim in a clean manner with zero hesitation.
"I've always liked shooting, so I've liked being around the perimeter," said the freshman from San Antonio. "If they're closing out too hard on us, I'm going to try to blow past them."
Throw in a bunch of guards that can shoot it well, and for the first time in a while you've got a UT team that is full of good free throw shooters.
Attacking from all areas on the floor with talented ball handlers helps increase those free throw attempts. For Brown, he was able to do it all, including getting to the line 12 times, which helped him put up a career-best 35 points on such few shots (22). Despite the career night, Brown was unhappy about his two missed free throws.
"I was trying to go in and not miss any the whole year," said Brown, who was visibly upset with himself during the game about his missed free throws. "I just have to work on it. Everything was working for me [tonight]. Whatever the defense gives me, I'm going to take it. I'm not going to force [anything]. Whatever they give me I'm going to take and run with it."
But Brown wasn't the only player that constantly attacked. Kabongo shot a team-high 17 free throws, making 12, and was nearly impossible to keep out of the paint at times. With Rhode Island's up-tempo style, Barnes felt this would be a good chance to see how his young freshman controls tempo, especially considering that Texas didn't practice yesterday before the game.
"I thought Myck did a great job," said Barnes. "We thought this could be one of those feast or famine games for him because he wants to play full throttle all the time. I thought a big thing too is that we didn't practice yesterday. We walked through most of their stuff, and for a young team I felt they did a pretty good job with just a walk through and the fact that we didn't have a lot of prep between the two games. We do think we can get out in the open floor and get fouled."
TEXAS FORCED TO GO ZONE WITH FOUL TROUBLE
With just nine recruited scholarship players and just one big man over 6-7, one of the biggest questions facing Barnes' team this season will be staying out of foul trouble while also playing the in-your-face pressure defense that Barnes preaches. Against Rhode Island, the Horns got in foul trouble late in the first half, which convinced Barnes to go with the 2-3 zone. The result wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't pretty.
"We really don't do a 2-3 zone in practice," Brown said. "We are a tough team, and we like to play defense, so we play man-to-man to see who is tougher. When coach (Barnes) put us in a 2-3 zone, we were like 'what?' We don't practice that, so we didn't know that area. We will have to go back and work on it just in case it happens again."
One of the reasons Barnes went to the zone was not only because of foul trouble, but because it was a chance to possibly force the Rams into longer possessions in order to get them out of rhythm. But when Texas was able to really gain the momentum back in the second half, it was because of its pressure, man-to-man defense.
"We went zone, and we haven't worked on it very much," stated Barnes. "But, we did it and actually put them (Rhode Island) in longer possessions, which helped us shorten the game there. At the start of the second half, we had to create a defensive identity. When we got back in control of the game, it was on the defensive end."
The battle to stay out of foul trouble, especially the big men, will be one to watch the entire season. Eventually, the Horns are going to have to get something out of their ability to play zone.
Texas gave up 22 offensive rebounds and 24 second-chance points against Rhode Island. With the lack of size, Texas is going to put a lot of effort into rebounding as a team and keeping the opposition off of the offensive glass.
"They got on the offensive boards," said UT's senior guard Brown. "We weren't boxing out. They were hitting shots at the time too. We have to finish possessions by boxing out."
Brown, McClellan, Kabongo, and Julien Lewis all appear to have the green light from deep. The foursome combined to shoot 9-of-21 (42.9 percent) from the land of three.
He shot just 3-for-10 from the floor, but Kabongo finished with 18 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds while just turning the ball over four times. The Horns committed only 12 turnovers and had 18 assists.
Texas travels to East Rutherford, New Jersey to participate in the Ticket City Legends Classic Championship round against Oregon State on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. on the Longhorn Network.